It's 1947 and the British are preparing to hand over control of India to a newly independent and eager local government. But as the new viceroy Lord Mountbatten (Bonneville) and wife Edwina (Anderson) arrive to oversee the transition of power they find the political situation to be more complex than first envisaged. The minority of Muslims, headed up by Jinnah (Denzil Smith), are looking to break away and form Pakistan, Nehru (Tanveer Ghani) hopes to keep India intact with a Hindu majority, while Ghandi (Neeraj Kabi) reckons giving Muslims congress would ensure peace. Meanwhile, Hindu Jeet (Manish Dayal) and Muslim Aalia (Huma Qureshi) rekindle their love despite Aalia being promised to another…
A comeback of sorts for Bend It Like Beckham director Gurinder Chadha, whose last outing was the rather awful It's A Wonderful Afterlife, Viceroy's House will satisfy those who fancy their Downton Abbey mixed with the BBC drama Indian Summers. It's ticking a lot of boxes here with its exotic locale, historical setting, star-crossed lovers, and the Upstairs Downstairs dynamics. Those appeased by the mash-up will overlook the stiff and obvious dialogue and the by-the-numbers romance because despite these failings Viceroy's House is a grower, shedding the exposition-heavy writing of its early stages to gain confidence as it goes on.
The performances help smooth over its rough edges too. Bonneville does his stiff upper lip thing but is occasionally allowed to push himself when he discovers he's merely a puppet of bureaucracy and a Churchill plan seeking to keep Russians from obtaining a port on the Indian Ocean. Anderson meanwhile concerns herself with equality among the house staff of Muslims, Hindus and Sheiks, asking the chefs to include more indigenous meals in their hitherto strictly British menus. Later, a flustered Simon Callow turns up as the reluctant cartographer employed to draw up boundary lines that will divide Pakistan and India, cutting through villages and lives; the resulting exodus and violence would displace something approaching twelve million and massacres would result in the deaths of two million. The late Om Puri is in a reduced role as Aalia's blind father, respecting Jeet but determined his daughter follow tradition and marry a Muslim.
What Viceroy's House does well is slowly escalate the tensions both on the grand political scale (Britain's role in the ensuing madness is fully explored) and in halls of the mansion, as the staff begin fighting amongst themselves before turning on their former employers with an increasingly hostile attitude.