Gillian Anderson and female icon Lady Mountbatten
10 FEBRUARY 2017 • 1:30PM
Award-winning actress Gillian Anderson takes on the role of Lady Edwina Mountbatten in new film Viceroy’s House. Here we explore the similarities (and differences) between the two and the parallels Anderson drew on to bring this uncompromising character to life.
Gurinder Chadha’s new film, Viceroy’s House, may be centred around the last Viceroy of India and his attempts to deliver India its independence, but perhaps the real star is his wife: Lady Edwina Mountbatten. Her boldness, progressive politics and strength are impossible to ignore against a backdrop of male dominance and subservient women.
While Hugh Bonneville is gripping as Lord Mountbatten, agonising over the Partition of India, it is Gillian Anderson’s Lady Mountbatten who captivates the audience.
Just like her on-screen character, Anderson is a woman who breaks from the status quo. Her career took off at the age of 24, when she auditioned for the role of Scully in The X-Files – a role she wanted because “for the first time in a long time, the script involved a strong, independent, intelligent woman as a lead character”.
Her instinct was right – The X-Files created a phenomenon known as “The Scully Effect”, where generations of young women were inspired to pursue careers in science, medicine and law enforcement. It was also on The X-Files that Anderson fought and succeeded in securing equal pay with her male co-star – not just in the 1990s but more recently in 2015.
“I have such a knee-jerk reaction to that stuff, a very short tolerance for that s***,” she said last year. “It was shocking to me [to be offered less than my male co-star in 2015], given all the work that I had done in the past to get us to be paid fairly. It is… sad. It is sad.”
Over the years, Anderson, now 48, has become an activist for equality, particularly for women. She has been a long-time supporter of the Feminist Majority Foundation, works with Eve Ensler’s V-Day movement aiming to end violence against women and girls, and most recently, took part in the Women’s March, where hundreds and thousands of women across the world came together to stand up against inequality.
This March, she will publish a self-help guide for women co-written with journalist Jennifer Nadel. WE: A Manifesto for Women Everywhere she describes as “a call-out to all women around the world – and by women I include girls, transgender, anyone who identifies themselves as being intrinsically female.”
It is this belief in women’s empowerment that has undoubtedly drawn Anderson to the role of Lady Mountbatten, a woman decades ahead of her time. Unlike Anderson, she was not outspoken about her belief in women’s rights, but her stance on female empowerment was evident in her actions.
Lady Mountbatten was famous for having a string of lovers throughout her marriage – her daughter Lady Pamela Hicks estimates there were around 18 men in her life – leading her husband to eventually accept them. At one point the couple lived in a type of “ménage à quatre” where both had a long-term lover – something remarkably progressive even by today’s standards.
“She called them her ‘ginks’, a slang word for ‘guys’, and she loved the thrill of being chased by them,” wrote Lady Hicks of her mother. “She began to collect them in a way that raised many eyebrows.” Not least her ‘spiritual affair’ with India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, said to be hinted at in numerous letters between the two, and confirmed by Nehru’s niece Nayantara Pandit as well as Lady Hicks.
Beyond her colourful private life, Lady Mountbatten did a great deal of public good. She championed refugees in India and used her charm to help bring religious warring communities together in what was known as known as Operation Seduction. She worked tirelessly on behalf of St John Ambulance and the Red Cross, to the point where her daughter described her as “impervious to physical hardship”.
It is this strength that has made Lady Mountbatten into something of a female icon, and one of the reasons Anderson’s portrayal is so successful. As director Gurinder Chadha notes, Gillian “really became her, the way she would hold her head and walk in a particular way”. Though the two are very different, and from very different times, a connection is clear – making for an incredibly compelling depiction of a woman who was very much ahead of her time.
From one empire, two nations are born
To celebrate the release of new film Viceroy’s House, the Telegraph has created a series of fascinating articles about life during the Raj, the political turmoil of the time and the legacy that colonial rule has left on our lives today. Find out more at tgr.ph/viceroyshouse now.
Set in 1947 during the six months leading up to Indian independence and the creation of Pakistan, Viceroy’s House is a historical drama following Lord Mountbatten’s turbulent rule as the last Viceroy of India.
Featuring an incredible cast including Hugh Bonneville, Gillian Anderson, Manish Dayal, Huma Qureshi and Michael Gambon, and directed by Gurinder Chadha, Viceroy’s House is in cinemas UK-wide from 3 March.