Black Narcissus (1947)

“We all need discipline. You said yourself they’re like children. Without discipline we should all behave like children.”

‘Black Narcissus’, directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger in 1947, is a British melodrama set in a convent of nuns in the Himalayas. Sister Superior Clodagh, played by Deborah Kerr, is placed in charge of a new school and hospital in the mountains. She takes with her a group of fellow nuns including the unstable Sister Ruth, played by Kathleen Byron. The convent buildings are managed by a louche, frequently half-naked Mr Dean who Clodagh finds herself simultaneously drawn towards and threatened by. Ruth’s paranoia increases and all the nuns begin to feel the effects and temptations of the isolated location, and all these effects build towards a tragic conclusion. It’s a rich, sumptuous movie with astonishing visual effects creates mostly out of matte paintings and solid, cavernous sets. Despite the fact it is mostly studio bound, there is a real sense of the mountains and altitude throughout the film. Partially, this is due to the simple effect of a constantly blowing wind through the scenes, and the inclusion of set dressing that responds to this movement of air. The film is a sequence of scenes in which the emotional and crypto-erotic tension is complemented by this constant movement and by the (for the time) exotic presentation of colour. However, for all its dazzling visual effects, the sight of western actors ‘blacking up’ to play Indians, and most of the Indian actors relegated to the position of background artists is uncomfortable. The performances in general throughout the film are strong, particularly Kerr as the stoic Clodagh, a character who buries her past and her temptations. At the other extreme is Byron as Ruth, who, unlike Clodagh, wears her emotions on the outside. Byron is as wayward and heightened as Kerr is repressed and subtle, but this tension between both the characters and the performances forms the dramatic backbone of the movie.

Would I recommend it? Yes – despite its dates approach to presenting people from other countries, it is a hypnotically beautiful movie and is surprisingly tense. For a laugh, I would suggest watching it in a double bill with Pedro Almodóvar’s 1983 comedy ‘Dark Habits’, a film that I wouldn’t be surprised to find was partially inspired by ‘Black Narcissus’.

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