#154 Black Narcissus
(1946, Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger [The Archers])
“What would Christ have done?”
It’s difficult to introduce this film. Unlike many others that have made the Films You Must See list, this one doesn’t seem to have much historical context, nor is it a huge influence on the movies that followed it. It’s a bit of an anomaly, and the sole link I have for it is in A Passage To India, another movie about Britons in India, only this is a much smaller film, one that takes place almost exclusively in a convent in a remote village.
Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr) is a nun who has just been appointed Sister Superior of a new convent that is to be set up in a mountain village near Darjeeling, where they will set up a school and a hospital for the people there. However, thanks to the mountain air and the presence of British agent Mr Dean (David Farrar), the nuns find themselves questioning their faith, and Clodagh finds herself distracted by thoughts of a pre-convent romance.
Black Narcissus is an impressive looking film for the forties. Aside from being filmed in colour, the mountain village is impressively rendered, a fact that becomes even more amazing when you discover the entire movie was shot in a studio. The sense of scale really helps bring out the atmosphere that so greatly affects the nuns throughout the movie. The movie also ends up looking so much more recent than it actually, resembling something from the sixties or seventies so much more than the forties.
The acting is also surprisingly good for an old British movie. It’s a common trend for movies of that period to feel rather stiff and unemotional, and while it certainly starts out that way, the situation improves gradually. The nuns especially show great emotion in their performances, particularly in Kerr’s performance as Clodagh. Her opening up and describing her life before becoming a nun was a fantastic speech that genuinely impressed me.
It’s such a shame that for much of the movie, I was a little bored. Not a lot particularly happens and so its ninety minute running time can feel a lot longer than it actually is. There’s a lot of staring wistfully and scenes can feel very repetitive at times. There are far too many scenes where the nuns seem to irrationally get irritated with Mr Dean, and each time it seems to get less clear exactly why they get so annoyed with him.
It’s also not clear what the movie is trying to achieve with its plot. Events tend to feel a little disjointed, and some characters, such as Kanchi (Jean Simmons), feel a little pointless. In fact, her entire appearance consists of being brought to the nuns for them to deal with, a short unexplained dancing scene and fawning over a young prince who comes to the nuns requesting education.
The climax of the movie, as fascinating as it is, also feels so out of place in relation to the rest of the movie it feels like it was added at the last minute. What started as a straight drama suddenly spends twenty minutes or so being a horror movie, with an ending that exists solely due to an inexplicable bell placement (why the nuns feel the need to have their bell balanced precariously on the side of a cliff I will never know).
The movie also feels like nothing ever gets resolved. The conflicts present in the movie – the relationship between the Anglican nuns and the villagers, the crises of faith, the tension with Mr Dean – aren’t really dealt with in a satisfactory manner. Mr Dean certainly proves himself to be a decent fellow despite the nuns’ initial impressions, but they warm to him too suddenly. The faith questions are never resolved, and by the end the nuns still have their questionable attitudes towards the Indian villagers (oh yes, the line “they smell” genuinely exists in this movie). It makes everything feel somewhat meaningless.
Black Narcissus is another of those films with no real reason to be on the list. It has its charms but it ultimately feels a little too average to deserve its position.
Starring Deborah Kerr, Sabu Dastagir, Jean Simmons, David Farrar & Flora Robson
Written by Rumer Godden (novel) and The Archers (Powell & Pressburger)
Produced by The Archers (Powell & Pressburger)
Music by Brian Easdale
Cinematography by Jack Cardiff
Edited by Reginald Mills
Favourite Scene: As ludicrously over-the-top the old Indian general was, he was definitely a fun character to watch. I’ll look past the fact that it’s essentially a blackface performance, mind.
Scene That Bugged Me: Kanchi dancing around in an empty room seemed to serve no purpose whatsoever.
Watch it if: You really like nuns and eyebrows
Avoid it if: You like your films to feel like they have a purpose