FILM

Tricia Youlden

Viceroy’s House
★★★★ PG

In 1947, British-Punjabi film maker Gurinder Chadha’s own grandparents became part of the post-Partition diaspora. As Sikhs, they had to leave their village in the foothills of the Himalayas because it lay within newly-created Pakistan. In Viceroy’s House, Chadha sets out to depict the effects of Partition on people like them, whose lives were thrown into chaos by the arbitrary division.

The film begins in Delhi with the arrival of Lord Louis Mountbatten (Hugh Bonneville), whose task is to negotiate the terms and conditions of granting independence to India no later than June 1948. Despite his hopes for a united India, Mountbatten soon realises that Mahatma Gandhi (Neeraj Kabi), Jawaharlal Nehru (Tanveer Ghani) and Mohammad Ali Jinnah (Denzil Smith) will not reach agreement, with the latter leader insistent on a separate Muslim state of Pakistan. The longer the stalemate lasts, the greater is the chance of civil war erupting.

Influenced by General Ismay (Michael Gambon), Mountbatten brings the deadline forward to August 15, 1947 in the hope of forcing a compromise.

While Mountbatten, his advisors and the Indian leaders are sweating it out upstairs in the palatial Viceroy’s residence, downstairs in the kitchen and corridors the Indian staff and servants are anxiously discussing and debating the ramifications of whatever snippets of information they can glean. Keeping her ears tuned to both the official and unofficial discussions is Lady Edwina Mountbatten (Gillian Anderson), whose astute sense of social justice takes her into the community, where she exhibits considerable empathy with the Indian people.

A budding romance between Mountbatten’s Hindu valet, Jeet (Manish Dayal), and Aalia (Humar Kureshi), a Muslim translator for the Viceroy’s daughter, Pamela (Lily Travers), exemplifies how the prospect of Partition is heightening divisions already present within the Indian community. As negotiations upstairs stall, so too does any prospect of future happiness for the lovers.

The screenplay, co-written by Chadha, her husband, Paul Mayeda Berges, and Moira Buffini, is strongly influenced by the account written by Narendra Singh (Mountbatten’s former aide-de-camp), in his book, The Shadow of the Great Game. Singh suggests details of Partition were conceived well before the 1947 negotiations and were designed to best serve British military and strategic interests.

Far from being portrayed as the heartless architect of an arbitrary Partition destined to cause violence, bloodshed and heartache, Mountbatten is depicted as having been cynically manipulated by General Ismay and like-minded old hands.

Sir Cyril Radcliffe (Simon Callow), the barrister sent out to officiate on behalf of the British establishment, is so appalled at the callous haste and disregard for consequences of Partition that he later refuses to accept his fee. It is only when his request that the case be referred to the United Nations is denied that he realises the extent to which he and Mountbatten are being used.

India might have gained Independence but Partition heralds a period of unspeakable carnage during which one million people die. While Chandha does not overly dwell on the horror of this period she does use it as the background for the final chapter in the love story between Aalia and Jeet.

She then closes the film on a personal note as she briefly introduces photographs of her grandparents, who were amongst the 14 million people displaced from their traditional homes.

Viceroy’s House looks amazing, with some exterior scenes shot outside the former Viceroy’s House, now the President’s residence, Rashtrapati Bhavan. Interior scenes were shot in a wing of the Umaid Bhawan Palace, which is now a luxury hotel. The entire cast gives utterly credible individual performances in portrayals of the historical figures.

This is an absorbing and provocative film.

Whiteley
★★★★★ M

On June 15, 1992, internationally acclaimed Australian artist Brett Whiteley, aged 53, died from a drug overdose alone in a Thirroul motel room.

With the invaluable assistance of Whiteley’s ex-wife, Wendy, writer-director James Bogle and co-writer Victor Gentile have woven together a fascinating and enlightening picture of this amazingly talented but infinitely complex man.

Whiteley becomes a work of art in itself as Bogle and editor Lawrie Silvestrin intercut archival material from various media sources and, most importantly, Wendy Whiteley’s private collection of paintings, photos and assorted memorabilia spanning more than three decades.

Bogle uses computer-generated imaging to vividly portray the heightened sense of reality unleashed when schoolboy Brett finds a book of Van Gogh’s paintings in church. This sets the bar high for the body of this gloriously colourful film as it traces the artist’s career from art school and advertising in Sydney, to Italy, London, New York, Fiji and back to Sydney.

It also paints an intimate portrait of Brett as son of Beryl and Clem, brother of Frannie, partner of Wendy and father of Arkie. His co-star in Whiteley is definitely Wendy — not merely his lover and wife of some 30 years but his muse and collaborator in a lifelong artistic exploration of the meaning of existence.

Producer Sue Clothier has assembled a highly-talented production team and supporting cast to ensure that Whiteley is a visually brilliant, enthralling, multi-layered celebration of the man’s life and work. Details stay with you long after the credits roll to the final strains of Ash Gibson Greig’s superb score. Definitely not to be missed.

Denial
★★★★ M

This gripping film is based on the book, Denial: Holocaust History on Trial, written by American historian and academic Deborah Lipstadt, who was sued in 1996 by infamous British historian David Irving for having characterised him as a Holocaust denier in her 1993 book, Denying the Holocaust.

David Hare’s scrupulously accurate screenplay commences when Irving (Timothy Spall), film crew in tow, publicly confronts Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz). When he sues her for libel she is shocked to learn that under British law, in order to defend the veracity of her claim, she must prove in court that the Holocaust did actually happen.

Barely able to subdue her outrage at the absurdity of this situation and frequently impatient and sceptical of the tactics employed by her British legal team, the passionate Lipstadt nevertheless comes to trust barrister Richard Rampton (Tom Wilkinson) and his advising solicitors, led by Anthony Julius (Andrew Scott), as they painstakingly prepare for the trial, which took place in 2000.

Although most of the film was shot in London in the Royal Courts of Justice, where the trial occurred, and at the Athenaeum Hotel, where Lipstadt stayed, some confronting scenes were filmed at Auschwitz-Birkenau, where Rampton takes Lipstadt and co. as he painstakingly prepares his case. So thorough is his research that he even learns German in order to better understand crucial original documents.

Wilkinson’s finely nuanced portrayal of this fiercely focused, highly intelligent barrister is outstanding. So too is Timothy Spall’s portrayal of the narcissistic Irving, who, having been flattered into choosing trial by judge rather than trial by jury, defends himself with unctuous self-assurance in court.

Even though one knows the outcome, Mick Jackson’s taut direction maintains the suspense right up until Judge John Trench (Hilton McRae) eventually delivers his studiously even-handed judgment in favour of the defendant, Lipstadt.

Impeccable performances and production values far outweigh Howard Shore’s intrusive score.

Rules Don’t Apply
★★★★ MA

“Never check an interesting fact”, a quote attributed to Howard Hughes, pretty much sums up the sentiment underlying Warren Beatty’s screenplay for this highly entertaining film about the eccentric billionaire film magnate, aviator and inventor. Beatty also directs and co-stars as Howard Hughes in Rules Don’t Apply.

The film begins in 1958 when Marla Mabrey (Lily Collins) and her sceptical, over-protective mother, Lucy (Annette Bening), arrive in Hollywood. Marla has just been contracted to join Hughes’ stable of starlets, each of whom is provided with a luxurious residence, tuition and a driver.

Of the numerous rules imposed by Hughes, the most important is that there be no fraternisation between starlets and drivers. Needless to say, Marla falls in love with Frank (Alden Ehrenreich), her driver. Not only is this verboten, but she is Baptist and he is Methodist and engaged! In his extremely idiosyncratic manner, Hughes takes a shine to both these youngsters, which further complicates their lives.

As Hughes’ codeine addiction exacerbates his mental instability and unpredictable behaviour, Marla, Frank and other members of his entourage (Matthew Broderick, Martin Sheen, Alec Baldwin) do not escape unscathed. Nor do Hughes’ hapless business associates and bankers, most memorably Oliver Platt as the apoplectic Forester. A notable exception is Nadine (Candice Bergen), Hughes’ unflappable secretary, who calmly deals with every request, reasonable or otherwise, made of her.

The large supporting cast features actors such as Ed Harris and Steve Coogan, all of whom appear to relish every crazy cameo as the Hughes’ retinue hurtles into the ‘60s.

Cinematographer Caleb Deschanel and Jeannine Oppewall’s production design team deftly recreate the classic Technicolor glamour of Hollywood in the latter studio era. The film looks stunning, the story is extremely entertaining, the performances are impeccable. Yet, Beatty’s tour de force performance and the film itself were completely overlooked in the 2017 Oscar nominations. That’s showbiz!

Tricia Youlden teaches drama at Willoughby Girls High School