Black Narcissus (1947)
Directors: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger
Screenwriters: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger
Starring: Deborah Kerr, David Farrar, Kathleen Byron, Sabu, Flora Robson, Jenny Laird, Judith Furse, Esmond Knight, Jean Simmons, May Hallatt, Eddie Whaley Jr
A technical masterclass in its day and a key artistic influence on filmmakers over the decades, including but not limited to Ken Russell (especially noticeable in The Devils) and Paul Verhoeven (particularly for Benedetta), three quarters of a century after its release, Powell and Pressburger’s Black Narcissus has lost little of its darkly divine power.
We follow an order of nuns who attempt to establish a convent, school and dispensary in a disused palace above a town in the Indian Himalayas. This is Sister Superior Clodagh’s (Deborah Kerr) first religious mission and dispute the immense responsibility on her shoulders she is helplessly reminded of her life in Ireland before the sisterhood. Soon all five women who make up the convent, especially the psychologically troubled Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron), are experiencing crises of faith as they struggle to ingratiate themselves with the locals and they encounter setback after setback.
Being a film from 1947, Black Narcissus can be only so salacious, a lot of the potential eroticism of a story of women committed to a vow of chastity surrounded by temptation in an isolated locale is left in the realm of the heavily implied. You’d have to wait until the “Nunsploitation” movies of the 1970s and Paul Verhoeven’s 2021 convent-set film to scratch that itch, and for the film that effectively ended Powell’s career in 1960, Peeping Tom, for him to thoroughly delve into the dark recesses of the human soul.
What Powell and Pressburger do get away with is David Farrar’s portrayal of Mr Dean, the local ruler’s English envoy who has to be among the most blatant male sex symbols of British cinema of this era. And that’s exactly his purpose in this story: to be an object of sinful desire for these nuns. Just look at him pose in those short-shorts as he negs and patronises Sister Clodagh.
Speaking of temptation, it’s the perfect conceit taken straight from Rumer Godden’s 1939 novel the film adapts to have an order of nuns ensconced in a randy prince’s palace with erotic, Kama Sutra-esque art festooning the walls. Even the most devout observers of a vow of chastity would inevitably have unwelcome thoughts in those surroundings.
Frequent Powell and Pressburger collaborator Jack Cardiff’s lush cinematography rightly won him an Oscar for the film, and the production design (headed by Alfred Junge) on every level still looks impressive today, particularly some of the most stunning shots in the film (notably scenes on the cliff-side bell tower) that incorporate the beautiful matt paintings by W Percy Day.
Sisters Clodagh and Ruth could not be more polar opposites personality-wise, but could also be considered twisted reflections of each other. Clodagh is out to prove herself as a reliable and true defender of the faith and only brings the clearly unwell Ruth with her at the insistence of her Mother Superior. Both Kerr and Byron are similarly physically striking but each of their sublime performances (and the energy behind their eyes) are completely different; they represent order vs chaos, detachment vs passion, piety vs sin. One is always in control and, though she acknowledges her happy past before taking her vows, she is committed to what matters, what could make a difference to so many: establishing a safe place to worship, for children to be educated and for the sick to be treated. The other, with her many and complex mental health problems, only needs a little push to put herself and others in danger in pursuit of her own happiness.
Some of the presentation is a bit hokey and orientalist to modern eyes, but the highly theatrical style really works if you get in the right headspace for it from the off. Unfortunately, even allowing for this being a product of its time, it’s hard to excuse Jean Simmons in brown makeup doing a bhangra dance.
Godden’s novel was published in 1939 but the film was made and released in a post-war world with Indian independence on the horizon. It’s somewhat patronising to have Mr Dean mansplain local customs and culture to the newly arrived sisters, and to the audience, but Powell and Pressburger’s attitudes to war and empire were famously uncomplimentary so they were likely aiming to acknowledge the time was right for the British to step back from this frequently exoticised corner of the world they didn’t understand.
The horror-tinged final stretch of the film, which follows the aftermath of Sister Ruth’s perhaps inevitable psychological break (all accentuated by Brian Easdale’s creeping score), is particularly good. The completely deranged facial expression Kathleen Byron gives Ruth as she comes out of the door onto the cliffside is the stuff of nightmares, and the scene that follows couldn’t be more effectively operatic.
This is probably among Powell and Pressburger’s bleakest films, being a far cry from their usual heady romance and optimism shown in the likes of A Matter of Life and Death. Blind faith is not the answer to inner peace and happiness, nor is completely giving into desire it would seem judging by the damage both do here, so we are left on a decidedly uncertain note to match the Brits leaving India to govern itself.
Some elements of Black Narcissus might jar with modern audiences, but seeing it for the first time is a real experience and there is no denying the quality of the performances, the visuals and the atmosphere in this iconic and influential psychological drama. Powell and Pressburger influenced generations of filmmakers that followed them and laid the groundwork for more explicit and visceral explorations of human nature.