Based on Rumer Godden’s book, Black Narcissus is the story about a convent of nuns who are haunted by their surroundings as they’re isolated inside the Himalayan valley. Even as tensions begin to mount with the nuns as they deal with the strange surroundings of the world they‘re in. Written for the screen, produced, and directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, the film is considered to be one of their great collaborations of their celebrated career. Starring Deborah Kerr, Sabu, Jean Simmons, David Farrar, Flora Robson, Kathleen Byron, and Esmond Knight. Black Narcissus is a captivating yet extraordinary drama from the team of Powell-Pressburger.
Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr) is a teacher at a convent in Calcutta as she’s called by her Mother Dorothea (Nancy Roberts) to head up a new school/hospital at an old palace in the Himalayas near Darjeeling. Clodagh accepts the job though she receives a letter from a British agent named Mr. Dean (David Farrar) who warns her about the land. Clodagh along with a small group of nuns make their way to the palace where they meet a woman (May Hallatt) who lives at the place along with the old General (Esmond Knight) who hopes for good things to come from the nuns. Yet, the nuns deal with winds and other things making it uneasy as Clodagh meets Mr. Dean where the two dislike each other.
With Clodagh and her fellow nuns trying to get the place working and available for the small children with help from an English-speaking boy named Joseph (Eddie Whaley Jr.). Two different visitors come to the place for different reasons in a mysterious dancing girl named Kanchi (Jean Simmons) and the General’s young nephew named the Young General (Sabu) who seeks an education from the nuns. Things go well for a while though the tension between Clodagh and Dean still rages on during a Christmas service where Dean is drunk but manages to charm the troubled Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron) from afar. Things start to get tense when the elder Sister Philippa (Flora Robson) feels ill while a tragic incident leaves the loving Sister Honey (Jenny Laird) consumed with guilt.
After talking to Dean about what happened along with Kanchi’s infatuation with Young General, Dean is aware that a lot is going on as he reveals that everyone should calm down and wait a few days. Clodagh realizes that Dean’s warnings were right as Sister Philippa wants to be transferred and Sister Ruth becoming more erratic. With only the tough Sister Briony (Judith Furse) being able to help out, Clodagh realizes something isn’t right as she deals with Ruth who has become more unstable in her love for Dean.
The film is a very provocative piece about a woman who is asked to head up and start a convent in the middle of the Himalayan mountains. For this woman who is now supposed to be the head of this convent, she has no idea what’s in store for her as she is warned by a British agent about the abandoned palace and landscape that a previous group of missionaries tried to inhabit. She still forges ahead where the place she encounters is very mysterious as she and her nuns all have good intentions and were very nice to the locals around them including the children. Yet, it becomes a world that is very strange in its beauty where some of the nuns become transfixed by their surroundings.
The screenplay that Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger create is fascinating for its motivations and character study as Sister Clodagh is a woman who is trying to do good as part of her service to God. While Dean is aware of what she’s trying to do, he knows that failure is to be expected despite Clodagh’s determination. Throughout the film, Clodagh would look back into her old life when she lived in Ireland was in love with a man (Shaun Noble). These flashbacks provided an idea of why she became a nun as she struggles to maintain her role while things around start to fall apart.
With characters such as Sister Briony, Sister Philippa, and Sister Honey each providing some support and moments that help Clodagh with her own conflict. It is the Sister Ruth character that is one of the most interesting as she becomes a wild-card throughout the film. Early in the film when Clodagh talks to her superior, the superior suggests Ruth to be part of the team as a way for her to be active. Ruth starts off fine despite feeling ill but as the film progresses, she becomes more unstable in her love for Dean. While the tension between Dean and Clodagh is more about morality and motivations, there is a bit of sexual tension in a subtle manner as both know they can’t be together. Yet, it would provide Ruth to push buttons both sexually and morally leading to a clash between her and Clodagh.
The direction of Powell and Pressburger is truly magnificent not just in scope but also in setting a mood for the film. While it’s shot mostly inside a studio with some shots at a garden in England, there is something magical to the way Powell and Pressburger create something is a world that looks very different and big in the way they frame the film. Particularly this amazing overhead shot of the cliffs during the morning when a nun rings the bell. They also create something where the world the nuns live in is very unique where things seem calm but also unsettling. Notably a scene where Clodagh watches Joseph teaches words to other kids at the garden but Clodagh is filled with unease by what Joseph is saying because of what’s in the garden.
The sense of tension and melodrama do create something that is very heightened in its stylization that is played up by the fact that a couple of British actors play Indians in the film. While it might create some unease of having white British actors play Indians, it’s only because it’s part of this world that is a bit artificial and not a lot of things are real in the world that Powell and Pressburger create. What is real is the tension and the way they push buttons including a scene late in the film involving Ruth and Clodagh. It is there that sexual taboos are pushed but only in a subtle manner with Clodagh trying to remain in control as Ruth pushes her with just this simple thing as an act of defiance. The overall direction of Powell and Pressburger is sensational and mesmerizing as they create what is truly one of their great films.
Cinematographer Jack Cardiff does a spectacular job with the film‘s rich yet colorful cinematography made by Technicolor at the time it was made. Cardiff’s work is magical from the look that he creates for the Himalayan world with its bright green grass and plants to the heightened look of the skies. Cardiff also creates some amazing lighting schemes such as the shading and sunset lights to help set the dark mood including some amazing yet intimate scenes with very little light. Cardiff’s work is definitely the film’s true technical highlight from late, great cinematographer in the second of his three collaborations with Powell and Pressburger.
Editor Reginald Mills does an excellent job with the film’s editing as he creates a wonderful degree of style to help the film move at a nice, leisured pace. Mills also creates some amazing transitions in the use of dissolves, fade-outs, and straight cuts to help maintain the heightened tone of the film. Notably in the flashbacks and more dramatic scenes as Mills’ work is truly dazzling.
Production designer Alfred Junge does a fantastic job with the art direction in creating wonderful backdrops for the decayed palace while the look inside the palace such as the hall is beautiful. Other set pieces such as the chapel is truly amazing as the art direction is another of the film’s highlights. Costume designer Hein Heckroth does a stellar job with the costumes from the look of the nun‘s clothing to the regal yet posh look of the General and the Young General. The sound work of Stanley Lambourne does some fine work with the sound from the group of people around the palace to the intimacy in some of the rooms in the palace
The film’s score by Brian Easdale is another of the film’s highlight as Easdale’s soaring score is filled with wonderful orchestral flourishes mixed in with Indian percussions. Notable pieces include the piece that Kanchi dances to that adds a bit of subtle eroticism that isn’t overt but enough to make it very lively. Easdale also creates some somber themes for the dramatic moments along with intense orchestral bombast in some of the film’s heightened moments. It’s among one of Easdale’s great scores of his career as well in his collaboration with Powell and Pressburger.
The casting by Adele Raymond is phenomenal as it features some notable small performances from Nancy Roberts as Clodagh’s superior, Shaun Noble as Clodagh’s former lover in the flashback scenes, and Eddie Whaley Jr. as the helpful boy Joseph. In the roles of the nuns, Judith Furse and Jenny Laird are excellent in their respective roles as the tough medical specialist Sister Briony and the chatty yet caring Sister Honey. Flora Robson is wonderful as Sister Philippa, an elderly gardener whose health and state of mind leaves her confused about her current place with the world. In a mostly silent performance, Jean Simmons is very good as the exotic Kanchi where Simmons plays a young woman falling for the Young General while using dance as her emotional outlet.
Esmond Knight is also good in a small role as the charismatic General who lets the nuns take the old palace and make into a convent. Sabu is superb as the General’s nephew who wants an education while dealing with the presence of Kanchi that comes to conflict with who he is. David Farrar is great as Mr. Dean, a charming man who tries to help out the nuns as he tries to deal with Sister Clodagh in a truly exhilarating performance. The film’s best supporting performance definitely goes to Kathleen Byron as the unstable Sister Ruth. Byron starts off very quiet as a woman in need to be of importance as she tries to do her duties only to fall for Mr. Dean as she starts to defy Clodagh in a fiery yet towering performance.
Finally, there’s Deborah Kerr in a very radiant performance as Sister Clodagh. Kerr brings a wonderful sense of restraint of a woman that is devoted to duty only to be torn by her own memories of her old life as well as her devotion to God. It is truly an enchanting yet complex performance from Kerr who brings a sense of quiet torment to a woman wanting to do what is right while dealing with the harshness of a world she doesn’t know. It is truly a spellbinding performance from Deborah Kerr who is one of the great actresses of the 20th Century.
***Written from 4/29/16-5/4/16***
The 2010 Region 1/Region A DVD/Blu-Ray release from the Criterion Collection presents the film in a new digital transfer under the supervision of cinematographer Jack Cardiff and Michael Powell’s widow in film editor Thelma Schoonmaker in its original 1:33:1 full-frame aspect ratio with a remastered mono soundtrack that is uncompressed for its Blu-Ray release. The film’s extras would feature an eight-minute and forty-three second introduction by filmmaker Bertrand Tavernier about the film as it’s an audio track recorded in 2006 against images and production stills of the film where Tavernier would discuss where Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger were at the time when production for the film was made as well as discussion on its cast, crew, and many aspects of the film that would make it famous.
The audio commentary track by Michael Powell and filmmaker Martin Scorsese recorded in 1988 has the two, via separate commentaries, talk about the film and many of its attributes. With Powell reflecting on the production and the fact that the film was shot largely on location at Pinewood Studios in London. Scorsese is more technical in his commentary while talking about the many times he saw it including a screening in 1983 which he states that the film should be seen in the theaters. The two also talk about moments in the film as well as the performances where Powell also talks about some of the casting decisions in the film as well as his fondness for some of the actors in the film as the commentary is just delightful to listen to.
The 17-and-a-half minute featurette entitled The Audacious Adventurer is a 2005 video interview with filmmaker Bertrand Tavernier about the film and its co-director Michael Powell. Tavernier talks about a lot about his friendship with Powell as well as conversations he had with him the past along with the events that led to the film. Tavernier talks about how Powell got the book during a time of war as he was later reminded by Pressburger about the book at a time when British audiences were tired of seeing war movies as the film marked a change of pace for the two. Tavernier also talked about the casting as Powell, who was in a relationship with Deborah Kerr, wasn’t sure if she was right for Sister Clodagh thinking she was too young but Kerr later convinced him to cast her as it’s a fun piece to watch.
The 25-minute documentary Profile of “Black Narcissus” made in 2000 is about the Archers production team as well as its cast in Kathleen Byron and cinematographer Jack Cardiff. Narrated by Jack Bond, the documentary discusses much of the film’s production as well as many elements in the film that some believe remains innovative in film. Film critic Ian Christie talks about the film’s historical impact as well as the mixed reception it did receive initially despite being a hit with audiences. Some of it due to the very subtle erotic elements in the film as it was considered very shocking while Byron talks about her performance, her relationship with Powell, and Deborah Kerr as they all knew they were doing something special.
The 26-minute Painting with Light by Craig McCall is a documentary piece made in 2000 about cinematographer Jack Cardiff as some of the portions of the film would later be included into the 2010 documentary Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff. The piece mostly focuses on Cardiff’s work on the film as it includes interviews with Kathleen Byron, Martin Scorsese, Thelma Schoonmaker, and film critic Ian Christie. Featuring a recreation of the set of the film where Byron is interviewed, the film discusses many of the aspects of Technicolor and what Cardiff did as well as into some of the technical details. Even as Cardiff draws inspiration from paintings and other works of art to give him visual ideas as he also talks about other small tidbits on what he contributed to the film as it’s must-see for anyone who love the art of photography. The DVD/Blu-Ray also features the film’s theatrical trailer as it sort of spoils some of the aspects of the film.
The DVD/Blu-Ray set also includes an essay by film critic/essayist Kent Jones entitled Empire of the Senses. Jones discusses many of the film’s theme including the theme of trying to change things to fit a certain way but deal with forces that couldn’t be changed. Jones also reveals that book’s author Rumer Godden didn’t like the film, despite her involvement in the production, while some critics, at the time, felt the film was style over substance. Jones also talks about the performances as well as reveal what got cut for its initial release as it relates to some of the flashback scenes of Sister Clodagh before she became a nun. It’s a fascinating essay about one of the finest films in British cinema.
***End of DVD Tidbits***
Black Narcissus is a hypnotic yet superlative film from Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger that features an outstanding cast led by Deborah Kerr. The film is among one of the hallmarks of the celebrated films Powell-Pressburger created in their revered career which includes The Red Shoes. This is a film that is filled with amazing imagery and a captivating score from Brian Easdale as it is truly imaginative in its look along with a dark yet seductive tone. In the end, Black Narcissus is a true one-of-a-kind film from the great duo of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.
Powell-Pressburger Films: The Spy in Black - (The Lion Has Wings) - Contraband - (An Airman’s Letter to His Mother) - 49th Parallel - One of Our Aircraft is Missing - The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp - (The Volunteer) - A Canterbury Tale - I Know Where I’m Going - A Matter of Life and Death - The Red Shoes - The Small Black Room - (Gone to Earth) - The Tales of Hoffmann - (Oh… Rosalinda!!!) - (The Battle of the River Plate) - Ill Met by Moonlight - Peeping Tom - (They’re a Weird Mob) - (Age of Consent) - (The Boy Who Turned Yellow)
© thevoid99 2011