Synopsis – A group of nuns struggle to establish a convent in the Himalayas, while isolation, extreme weather, altitude, and culture clashes all conspire to drive the well-intentioned missionaries mad- Black Narcissus
Release – 1947
For fans of – The Red Shoes, Great Expectations (1948), The Third Man
After watching the BBC’s recent adaptation of Black Narcissus, I wanted to revisit the original to see how attitudes have changed and just how far the filmmakers were able to push things in terms of religious impropriety and repressed sexual desire given the time in which it was made and location of a Christian nunnery isolated high up in the Himalayas.
Although not shot in location, something that is painfully obvious at times, especially the outdoor sets, this did open Black Narcissus up to being filmed in colour and enabled directors Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger to experiment with set pieces and new movie techniques, resulting in an unusual visual style, going some way to explaining why the art direction and cinematography by the legendary Jack Cardiff earned this movie an Oscar, while the use of colours suits the tone of the film, the bleak grey interior of the nunnery protecting the inhabitants from the vibrant and wild outside world.
Deborah Kerr is electric as the female lead, while a young Jean Simmons also makes a memorable impression in an early movie appearance. Unfortunately, the movie falls down when it comes to the plot, with multiple characters introduced, only for them to disappear from the story without conclusions to their story arcs, leaving you to wonder what the point of introducing them was for, other than to pad the runtime.
Overall Black Narcissus is an enjoyable film, sure there are elements that feel dated and the sets look like they might fall down with a strong wind, but the central story of desire and conflict is engaging and unexpected given it was released in the ’40s. The rich colours match the slightly erotic feel of the production and the cast does well with what they were given, I just wish the filmmakers didn’t try to introduce every character from the novel if they weren’t prepared to follow the character’s story through to the end.