Review of 'Black Narcissus'

black_narcissus.jpg Nun Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr) is posted as Sister Superior in the St. Faith convent at the Palace of Mopu perched high in the Himalayas. General Todo Rai of Mopu (Esmond Knight) - “The Old General” - wishes to see the old palace used by the nuns to provide education and healthcare to the largely ambivalent locals. Clodagh is accompanied by Sister Briony (Judith Furse) for her strength, gardener Sister Phillipa (Flora Robson), Sister “Honey” Blanche (Jenny Laird) for her positive personality and the deeply troubled Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron) who the Reverend Mother hopes will find her faith in the new convent. The palace caretaker Angu Ayah (May Hallatt) is very cynical of the new arrivals but grudgingly helps them convert the long abandoned buildings for their use. They are also assisted by the ruggedly handsome Brit Mr. Dean (David Farrar), agent to the General, who is equally cynical but proves to be a huge help in liaising between the nuns on the people. Establishing the convent proves to be problematic starting with the general paying the locals to attend to the increasingly erratic behaviour of the nuns…is it something in the air?

An interesting (?) though ultimately disappointing bit of British melodrama that is all about unspoken secrets and plot than it is about the cookie-cutter characters. Clodagh is perpetually wrapped up in self-doubt, Phillipa does whatever she wants with the garden regardless of what she is told by Clodagh, preferring time with the children, Briony is a robotic nurse, etc, etc. The occasional flash backs of the characters to their previous lives does not really shed too much light in the characters but, I suppose, does pad out the running time.

Throughout the film there is the feeling of something unspoken going on behind the scenes but this is never revealed nor, at the end, does it ever seem to have existed. The quizzical and beautifully filmed looks on character's faces is ultimately style over substance. This film oozes with style: Wonderfully framed shots of the interesting looking palace perched high in the mountains (the long shots of the palace are, by today's effects standards, not entirely convincing but they are undeniably beautiful) but, sadly, character development is off the cards as the nuns are left to their own devices leading to a rather overly-dramatic finale that seems to come completely out of left field and in the course of only a few minutes.

This is a slow picture, even by the standards of the day, that ultimately fails to deliver as we care little for anyone on the screen. Even the easy going Mr. Dean fails to provide any real spice or humour to the mix other than bemusedly commenting on some of the initiatives of the nuns - Being the “I told you so” person pretty much his sole purpose. Perhaps not looking too deeply at the film you can get engrossed in it, but anyone looking any further than a one-line character description will ultimately be disappointed.

“Black Narcissus” – All drama and style with no substance, full of one-dimensional characters we neither care for nor really understand.

Rating: “A bit better than average”

Review Date: 2021-01-24

Directed by: Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger

Studio: The Archers

Year: 1947

Length: 101 minutes

Genre: Melodrama