The great strength and weakness of Gurinder Chadha’s Viceroy’s House is that it does exactly what you expect from it. It’s well-acted and nice to look at, with no great, glaring faults. It’s workmanlike and professional — and not very interesting. Viceroy’s House does nothing original or exciting, let alone memorable. It’s the kind of movie where a great deal of care has been put into its creation but not a lot of real thought or creativity. It exists, which is more than one can expect from most movies, I suppose, but it doesn’t do much beyond that and is certainly nothing to get worked up over, either.
The movie, at its heart, hearkens back to old Merchant-Ivory productions, but with a dash of Bollywood this time around. What this means is you get a film with a lush sense of period (in this case, 1940s India), a bit of political history and a dash of melodrama. The film’s attempting to retell the story of India’s transition into independence, something I can’t really comment on as far as accuracy goes, being a layperson on the subject and all. But Viceroy’s House has a sheen of erudition that sucks a lot of the life out of the topic, making the film feel like little more than a parade of expository speeches and cheeky wisdom that gives the movie an unrealistic and needlessly stiff tone.
To help with this is a subplot about a Hindu valet (Manish Dayal) and the Muslim woman (Huma Qureshi) he’s in love with, which attempts to both show the impossibility of such a thing in 1940s India while giving the movie a more intimate emotional center for the audience to latch onto. None of it quite works, with its Romeo and Juliet romance feeling none too original or all that romantic. Part of the problem might be that the dueling plots that make up the film don’t have enough time breath on their own. The only issue with this is that adding more run time to the movie also wouldn’t be doing anyone any favors, protracting an already flat film.
In the film’s favor, the cast is solid, especially Gillian Anderson as Lady Edwina Mountbatten, though she’s not exactly giving the kind of transcendent performance that can lift a film like Viceroy’s House anywhere beyond middling. Again, it’s a product of the solidness of the entire endeavor that is the real issue, taking a truly tumultuous time in history and making it dramatically unrisky. Not that I’m one of those people who beg for stark realism in my movies, but Viceroy’s House just sits right in the center of everything. Not Rated. Now playing at Grail Moviehouse.