Eventually we're going to have to stop pointing out the post-Trump and Brexit symbolism in every film that comes along, but not yet, because Viceroy's House is a vivid reminder of the results of botched policies on migration.
When the British retreated after 300 years of rule, they hurriedly drew a line on the map and made India and Pakistan two independent countries. The ensuing upheaval of over 14 million people, with Muslims heading north and Hindus and Sikhs heading south, tore families and friendships apart. From all this mess, Gurinder Chadha has crafted a sweeping period melodrama. Gorgeously staged, all the historical angles are covered and all the stately settings are in place. And the casting is splendid – if a bit obvious. It's another starchy turn for Hugh Bonneville as Louis Mountbatten. More dressing up and Downton-esque overcooked moralising for him. “We came to give India her freedom, not tear her apart,” he moans, not long after putting in a breakfast order in the manicured gardens for “two poached eggs, tomatoes, sausage and tea.” Gillian Anderson shows off an impressive clipped accent as Louis's wife Edwina and the English contingent is packed with some of Britain's finest thesps, including Michael Gambon and Simon Callow.
Interestingly in real life, according to the Mountbatten's youngest daughter Pamela, her mother fell briefly in love with the future prime minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru. It would have been fantastic to see a bit of that. But there's not a whiff of the affair in the movie. Instead the romantic strand is picked up by an engaging but predictable love story between two servants - one Hindu (Manish Dayal) the other Muslim (Huma Querishi). And just in case we didn't get the idea of how unfeeling rules can destroy true love, Om Puri plays her blind father pushing for an arranged marriage.
This is Chadha's biggest film so far in scale and ambition, but behind her decision to make it is a smaller story. It's a personal family connection which, when revealed after the credits, finds more emotional impact than most of the scripted material before it. It's hard to know where the problem lies as the attention to detail of the Raj-era high society is authentic enough, and the political decision-making of the time is thoroughly explored too. But somehow a soapy sheen has settled over the picture. At times it feels like they barely visited India. They did – an eight-week shoot in Rajasthan – but they forgot to get a bit of grit in the camera. Coming after the incredible Lion, which perfectly captured the essence of the continent, Viceroy’s House lacks bite.