Black Narcissus

Black Narcissus

****

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

On the 15th of August 1947, India became an independent nation, officially free of British rule. Just a few weeks earlier, a film came out that, in its own obscure way, encapsulated the gulf in understanding that had ensured Britain's dominion could never last. That film was Black Narcissus.

Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr) is the leader of a small group of nuns invited to set up a school and hospital in a remote Bengali village. When they arrive, they find themselves accommodated in a former seraglio, erotic paintings still adorning its walls. Looking down on this new convent, perhaps spiritually as well as physically, is the local holy man. The local people don't speak any language the nuns know so they are forced to rely on a child to translate. The local British agent, Mr Dean, wanders around shirtless, embodying a temptation that drives them to distraction. To top it off, the young nobleman who has beseeched them to give him an education begins a passionate affair with a lower caste girl, breaking his society's taboos as well as theirs, but by then they are no longer in a condition to notice.

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Facing off against these problems, Sister Clodagh shows a steely resolve, all stiff upper lip and resolutely impeccable manners, but she cannot control the emotions of her companions. Most notable among these is the mentally fragile Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron), with each jealous of the other's attachment to Mr Dean; it's a situation that perhaps found parallels in real life, with each actress having had a romantic attachment to their director. Byron's performance gradually descends into hysterics yet in her desperation there's an edge of something seriously frightening. It's not the madness itself, nor the physical threat she might present, but more the way she comes to symbolise a chaotic world which no amount of civilising effort can restrain.

Though it was shot almost entirely in Pinewood studios, in places using bits of set familiar from older productions, Black Narcissus has at its heart a sense of place that is haunting. Jack Cardiff's inimitable cinematography makes flawless use of matte paintings and model work, blending them seamlessly with the studio shots to situate us high up in the Himalayan mountains. Perfectly controlled lighting simulates the thin air that exhausts the once disciplined sisters. The colour palette is restrained throughout, with only the Indian nobility clad in rich tones, so that a flash of scarlet near the end - and subsequently the falling of rain across the parched mountains - clearly signals a breakdown of the established order. Although the film is intensely erotic, there is not so much as a kiss between the actors - what matters are not actions but thoughts and feelings, conveyed through colour, music and lingering glances.

Kerr is perfect in the lead role and David Farrar oozes confident, masculine sexuality as Mr Dean, so complete in himself that he mocks the nuns' efforts to establish a different way of being without any need for direct confrontation. There's also a rare adult role for Sabu, charming as the young general who is ensnared by love, though sadly the other Indian characters are played by white actors in heavy make-up. It's ironic that, in addressing the problem of empire so astutely, the film's creators were still unwilling to give Indian actors equal standing. This deliberate mimickry and separation, though never played exploitatively, echoes the artificiality of the nuns' situation. In an early scene the older general jokes that the nuns can eat sausages until they learn to cook for themselves, emphasising that, though they present themselves as teachers, they have much to learn about real life. Their intellectual authority is emphemeral - to the Bengalis they have curiosity value and little more. "Go, before something happens," Mr Dean urges them - and, though it is never fully clear what that might be, it seems to echo Britain's final recognition that in colonising India it had bitten off more than it could chew.

Black Narcissus is a film that relies heavily on these metaphors, being superficially somewhat mired in melodrama, but its sheer beauty keeps most viewers engaged as its layers of meaning unfold. In its time it was also rare in its stark confrontation of female desire, and it has lost nothing of its intensity with the passage of time.

Reviewed on: 21 May 2012
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A group of nuns struggle to keep order in a remote Himalayan convent.
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Director: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger

Writer: Rumer Godden, Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger

Starring: Deborah Kerr, Flora Robson, Jean Simmons, David Farrar, Sabu, Esmond Knight, Kathleen Byron, Jenny Laird, Judith Furse, May Hallatt, Shaun Noble

Year: 1947

Runtime: 100 minutes

BBFC: U - Universal

Country: UK

Festivals:

EIFF 2005

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