Lord Mountbatten has arrived in Colonial India in 1947 to oversee an orderly transfer of power after three centuries of British rule.
If only, he soon learns, it was that simple.
"Viceroy's House" is really two stories wrapped in one. The one that is better presented tells the story of Mountbatten (Hugh Bonneville, "Downton Abbey's" Earl of Grantham), who ultimately feels he has no other choice but to develop a plan that leads to partition of the newly independent India and the creation of the republic of Pakistan.
Mountbatten and Lady Edwina (Gillian Anderson) are portrayed as sympathetic and liberally minded rulers eager to expedite the turnover of power in as inclusive a manner as possible and without causing embarrassment to Britain.
Then there is the view seen from several Indians among the hundreds on staff at the sprawling, 340-room Delhi palace that Lady Edwina observes "makes Buckingham Palace look like a bungalow."
Prominent among them is the superficially presented romance between Jeet (Manish Dayal), one of Mountbatten's personal attendants, and Aalia, a Muslim translator and childhood friend who also works for the viceroy's family. Jeet is hopelessly in love with her, but Aalia, who cares for her blind, infirm father (Om Puri), is to be married through a family arrangement. As things start to warm up between them -- it never gets above a simmer -- her betrothed unexpectedly returns from a military stint overseas, hoping to relocate with his bride-to-be in this newly created Pakistan.
While Indian Hindus and Sikhs are overjoyed at the prospect of India's coming independence, that notion is not going over well with Muslims, who are in the minority of the population and fear their treatment as second-class citizens. As widespread violence escalates across India, Mountbatten, Britain's last viceroy, brings faction leaders together to strike a compromise nobody really likes.
Mountbatten must navigate between civil rights leader Mohandas Gandhi (Neeraj Kabi), who wants to preserve the Indian state; Jawaharlal Nehru (Tanveer Ghani), India's first prime minister who also wants to keep the country whole; and Muhammad Ali Jinnah (Denzil Smith), who leads the All-India Muslim League pushing for the founding of Pakistan.
As the film fades to black, it's explained that thousands of deaths and the displacement of more than 10 million people will result.
British Prime Minister Winston Churchill is shown through a re-created newsreel, one of many seamlessly and artfully employed crackling film strips to advance the story line. It also turns out the remote leader is not as hands-off in decision-making as Mountbatten has assumed. Dumbledore's Michael Gambon -- how can "Harry Potter" fans ever see him any other way? -- is a close ally of Churchill's who in a short time successfully insinuates himself as a close advisor to Mountbatten.
The costume drama has much going for it: The history is educational, the set locations beautiful to watch, the attention to detail spot-on and the acting on the British side, especially - notably Bonneville, Anderson and Gambon -- is often terrific.
But that's the rub. The Indians portrayals -- from the servants eavesdropping on Mountbatten to the petty squabbles that flare up between the Hindus and Muslims, to Jeet and Aalia's exchanges -- are comparatively shallow and heavy-handed.
Bonnenville's steel-chinned and earnest portrayal of Mountbatten drives the film, matched by Gillian's compassionate presentation of Lady Edwina as an open-minded crusader who marches down to the kitchen to visit the shell-shocked cooks, and fires an English employee on the spot for uttering a racist comment.
Gurinder Chadha, the British-raised director and co-writer ("Bend It Like Beckham"), had a personal stake in the story that's also revealed before the start of the credits. The history lesson this film offers is timely, too, as this year marks the 70th anniversary of India's independence and Pakistan's creation.
★ ★ ★ (out of 4)
Hugh Bonneville, Gillian Anderson, Manish Dayal and Huma Qureshi star in a costume drama about the turbulent end to the British empire in India. 106 minutes. (Not rated, but PG-13 equivalent for thematic material.)