“History is written by the victors,” reads a text at the beginning of Viceroy’s House. That’s not a thought that exactly comes to mind throughout this story about the parting schemes of a humbled and dissolving British empire as it pulls out of India. Certainly the British give no indication of humiliated defeat as they stand on ceremony during the opening scenes, which revel in the imposing splendor of Britain’s seat of direct rule, here a colossal mansion in New Delhi that’s staffed by hundreds of native Indians who’re bossed around by English officials as if this were the height of the Raj.
The multitudinous staff turns out in full ceremony for the arrival of Lord Louis Mountbatten (Hugh Bonneville), the latest and last Viceroy of India, as he comes to preside over the country’s independence and its ongoing partition negotiations. The film splits focus between Mountbatten’s meetings and negotiations with the comings and goings of the Indian workers who must navigate the vast interiors of the Viceroy’s House (now the Rashtrapati Bhawan) and the equally byzantine social and religious strata that complicate the seeming uniformity of their labor roles. Those differences become ever more apparent as national tensions inflame, creating schisms between fellow cooks and manservants that baffle and terrify their Western overseers.
For the most part, however, the external religious struggle that grips India is manifested in a Romeo and Juliet narrative between two of the servants, the Hindu Jeet (Manish Dayal) and the Muslim Aalia (Huma Querishi). Their romance largely consists of furtive glances and brief, nervous conversations, never escalating into passion. This makes the relationship dull on its face, and unwieldy as a metaphor for the larger religious conflict that builds over the course of Gurinder Chadha’s film. Because Jeet and Aalia never come together with any sense of urgency, they fail to engender any suspense or tragedy when India’s splintering threatens to tear them apart.
Indeed, Mountbatten comes across as significantly more shaded than the film’s Indian characters. Bonneville portrays the viceroy as a regal but liberal man, representing a belated interest in Indian culture now that the British no longer control the nation. Yet Mountbatten’s calm curiosity only further marks him as an outsider as the country falls apart outside the maintained order of the Viceroy’s House, and his impotent attempts at an orderly transition only mark him as a naïf to his colleagues and the Indians alike.
Mountbatten’s uselessness offers Viceroy’s House a potentially incisive theme on the hollow niceties of liberalism rooted in colonialism, but the film takes a strange narrative turn that makes the official himself the victim of British schemes. As the screenplay (by Paul Mayeda Berges, Moira Buffini, and Chada) tells it, Mountbatten’s idea for a gentler, more peaceful partition is scullied from afar by the machinations of Churchill, who devises a scheme to use the future state of Pakistan as a buffer zone against the Soviet Union.
In the version of history offered up here, Mountbatten and his assistants are nothing more than pawns for Lord Ismay (Michael Gambon), an imperious nobleman who callously ignores the viceroy’s commissioned research on how to partition the country and instead draws a border most advantageous to the crown. Mountbatten is only there for Churchill to divert the blame for the plan, which reorients the impact of this final blow of imperial manipulation not around India but the viceroy. This effectively absolves Mountbatten’s hapless do-gooder instincts and complete unfamiliarity with the geography and culture of the area he temporarily rules, a far cry from the film’s initial, more pointed equation of the man’s well-meaning obliviousness with the condescension and obliviousness that characterized the Raj.
The only thing in the film that offsets this self-negating revisionism are the scenes involving the viceroy’s wife, Lady Edwina Mountbatten (Gillian Anderson). Edwina magnifies her husband’s liberalizing tendencies, arriving at the viceroy’s house with patronizing smiles and instructions to incorporate more Indian culture into the mansion and invite more native guests to official events, and she even fires an overseer on the spot for overt racism. She views this reform as a gesture of respect, but the servants only see it as an order, and the film’s best scenes pit Edwina’s insistent liberalism against their private complaints. When she tells the head cook to make more Indian dishes, for example, he can only grouse about being trained his whole life to cook Western cuisine only to now be told to make something else.
Anderson depicts Edwina as sincere and intelligent but nonetheless capable of looking foolish, with the vicereine’s practiced countenance and bearing only reinforcing the ridiculousness of her idea of experiencing the “real” India from behind the house’s walls. Edwina, more eager than her husband to get dirt on her hands and to meet the people, offers the film’s most insightful glimpse of the terminal limits of reform and respect under a system in which one nation can dictate the policies and even borders of another.