1940's, Black Narcissus, David Farrar, Deborah Kerr, Emeric Pressburger, Flora Robson, Jean Simmons, Kathleen Byron, Michael Powell, Powell and Pressburger, Sabu
Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
- Deborah Kerr as Sister Clodagh
- David Farrar as Mr.Dean
- Kathleen Byron as Sister Ruth
- Flora Robson as Sister Phillipa
- Sabu as the Young General
- Jean Simmons as Kanchi
- Jenny Laird as Sister Honey
- Judith Furse as Sister Briony
- May Hallatt as Angu Ayah
A psychological study of an order of nuns set in the Himalayas, Black Narcissus is a bold, daring and at times deeply unsettling look at religious turmoil and the effects a place can have on the mind and senses. If you are looking for a film that is a feast for the eyes but also for the brain, Black Narcissus is the film that I would advise you to watch.
The story centres on five nuns who are invited to a palace high up in the Himalayas. Their duty is to open a convent, which will also double as a hospital and school. Heading this mission is young Sister Clodagh who has recently been promoted to Sister Superior, although she is unsure of whether she is the one to fulfil and uphold this difficult job. The palace was once a harem and the debauched shadows of this time linger on as the Sisters attempt to convert it into a place of purity and worship. Although the Sisters try to remain true to the vows they have taken, temptation takes many forms causing doubt amongst the quintet. Another story is that of the Young General who comes to the convent to learn and falls for the beautiful dancing girl Kanchi, despite the differences in class and morals. It is from the General that the film takes its title, as he wears a perfume scented with it. The strange atmosphere and remote surroundings causes a crisis of faith to sweep the place like a fever, as each of the nuns begins to experience feelings of deep uncertainty. The most frightening example of this is the pathological jealousy of the unstable Sister Ruth as she falls for the handsome Mr.Dean but becomes convinced that Sister Clodagh also has a soft spot for him. This leads to a terrifying and utterly intense final act.
From the opening scenes of the Himalayas to the hysteria caused by the exotic former harem, the film is an enchanting viewing, mainly because of its rich cinematography. A prime example of this is the scenes in which Sister Clodagh has flashbacks to her time before she became a servant of God. The use of colour accentuates the freedom she had before this and lets us into the mindset of this inexperienced young woman trying to keep things in order. As well as this, the set design is outstanding, making the palace an unnerving place with drafty corridors and murals that reveal the debauchery that occurred years before. The presence of an elderly ayah who is prone to shrieks of manic laughter and remarks about how the nuns will succumb to the atmosphere, also adds to the creepiness that is felt throughout the picture. Powell once said that this was one of the most erotic films he ever made, and after viewing it I would agree with his statement. But when I say erotic I don’t mean it in the sense of what we see in the cinema today. It is all done with subtle instances and non explicit references. Sister Ruth unveiled without her habit, clad in a crimson dress applying lipstick, Mr.Dean’s many advances and remarks towards Sister Clodagh, the first sight of Kanchi slowly but seductively eating a papaya and many other instances.
As I’ve mentioned earlier, the cinematography and set design should be praised, but the performances of the cast should also be justly given notice. Deborah Kerr exudes emotional turmoil and regret as Sister Clodagh, all of this is done by her expressive eyes that tell the whole story of this woman out of her depth in the exotica of the former harem. Kathleen Byron as the unstable Sister Ruth is splendidly sinister and cunning, her snake-like smile sending shivers down the spine and her eyes being used to scary effect in the climatic scenes. The supporting players, no matter how big or small the role, each add something to this strange and utterly bewitching tale of faith, repressed emotions and the frailties of the psyche when confronted with a challenge.
This is a drama film that asks deep questions yet never gives the easy answer. Powell and Pressburger have created a film of heightened emotions in the most unlikely of places and circumstances. Prepare to be left chewing the cud after the movie has finished. If you haven’t seen it, please give it a watch as I’m sure you will find something to engage your interest. Black Narcissus is a must see, both for its visual flourishes and its intensely dramatic story of conflict and faith.