Black Narcissus Review

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by Chris McEneany Aug 10, 2008 at 12:00 AM

    Black Narcissus Review
    It may seem odd to start a review for one film with a quote from an entirely different one but, in this case, it perfectly sums up the disquieting quality of unease, alienation and paranoia that Michael Powell's and Emeric Pressburger's haunting classic, Black Narcissus, evokes so magnificently. The quote is from Roger Donaldson's The Bounty and comes from Anthony Hopkins' Captain Bligh as he faces Edward Fox in a tribunal to ascertain how his men came to mutiny ...

    “But what made them so easy to corrupt?”

    “I don't know ... it was the place, itself.”

    Certainly the same can be said for Deborah Kerr's order of nuns as they each succumb to the uncanny and dislocating atmosphere of their eerie mountaintop sanctuary in the high Tibetan peaks. The place, itself, works magic against them, perhaps not with any malice, not with any sinister intent, but its spectral ambience and incredibly humbling vistas open up once guarded and devoted minds to memories long thought submerged, emotions once believed to be buried impenetrably and once incorruptible souls left vulnerable to melancholy, darkness and dementia. Proudly atmospheric and wonderfully gothic despite the blazing Technicolor and often wildly gaudy costumes and sets, the 1947 drama from the gifted, individualistic and highly original filmmakers who also brought such seminal classics as The Red Shoes, A Matter Of Life And Death, I Know Where I'm Going and A Canterbury Tale to the screen, is a potent dissection of moral and spiritual dilemma.

    The Anglican nuns, led by Kerr's self-repressed Sister Clodagh, are sent to the Himalayan Mopu Palace to set up a school and a medical dispensary. But, in a neat spin on the oft-used horror legend of something having already happened there, we learn that an order of monks had once attempted the same thing and, for mysterious reasons, only lasted five months before packing up and leaving. In their meagre number, we have the always reliable Flora Robson as Sister Philippa, who is to tend to the crops that they plant on the wind-and-sun refreshed steppes, Kathleen Byron's seemingly bitter Sister Ruth who is to teach the local children with the aid of a very young interpreter, Sister Briony (Judith Furse), who can't make coffee and Sister Honey (Jenny Laird) who supplies the hysterics in the medical room. I am constantly surprised and amused by how varied these supposed sisters of the faith actually are to one another and it is not too ridiculous to even compare their disparate, irascible and, ultimately, doomed relationships within the flock to the more overtly caricatured and volatile gatherings of men in a Walter Hill action flick!

    “You are objectionable when sober, and abominable when drunk!”

    Based on Rumer Godden's book, the film explores in dramatic and thematically surreal fashion the influence of time, place and attitude upon the nuns. Nobody remains unchanged and for most the experience will take them to the thresholds of not only their beliefs, but their very sanity. Set amid gloriously airy landscapes - mostly painted backdrops that actually add to the spellbinding sense of the exotic and the otherworldly - and wrought-about through intense, hyper-intimate exchanges and revelation, the juxtaposing of the colour and spontaneity of the jungle-swathed lowlands with the grey, shadow-draped nether-realm of the high-altitude stone enclave forming a see-saw pattern of bright aspiration and dark intent. A palpable cloud of mystery forever enshrouds the souls of the sisters who, try as they might to win over the hearts and minds of the local villagers, cannot seem to avoid treading on toes and breaking with customs and protocol. Divorced from their usual doctrine and cut off from reality, the sisters become, one by one, ensnared by something that even their hallowed rituals cannot thwart. Marvellous realisations dawn and unlooked-for provocations turn up around every corner. Lust and deception, jealousy and madness are the eventual destinations for some and it is not hard to see how such a melodramatic stew of taboos set pulses racing back when the film was released. Even today, Black Narcissus confronts issues in such a way that it goes way, way beyond a simple tale of nuns on a mountaintop.

    “You'd like the General, Sister. He, also, is a superior being.”

    I've discussed the potency and clinical precision of Deborah Kerr in reviews for The Innocents already and confessed how cold and austere I often find her, admittedly incredible, performances. But, as with her starched and repressed Miss Giddens in The Innocents, her portrayal of the troubled Sister Clodagh is one of those indelible showpieces that are the hallmark of classic, immortal cinema. There are instances of almost transcendental relocation when Clodagh's mind goes wandering that Kerr is majestically poignant at bringing to bear. With a film that is immaculately composed of framed female faces against such vibrant and/or moody backdrops, it is nothing short of miraculous how much emotional angst, fury or beatific calm can be focussed upon, and Kerr's porcelain features and anxious eyes can be positively hypnotic at times. My only caveat with her casting here is that in the flashbacks to her earlier days courting in a little Irish village she looks far too mature for the impetuous, smitten young girl that she is meant to be playing. Bizarrely, with her wild red hair flowing free from her nun's headpiece, she actually looks older than she does as the supposedly wiser and more religion-devoted woman that she was to become. Even so, Kerr's sincerity and dedication to nailing the inner turmoil that she is experiencing yet mustn't show is second to none. Her tenderness feels intentionally fake, her character putting on the pretence of compassion even to those that we - and they, incidentally - know she cannot abide. When it comes to airs and graces there are few more adept at making their constraints as credible or as strained as Kerr and, at times in Black Narcissus, we literally feel her seething resentment at her own enforced decorum like a physical emanation from the screen. I may prefer her performance in Jack Clayton's The Innocents, but this is still a towering and unforgettable portryal.

    David Farrar, who would go on play the Persian King Xerxes in Rudolph Maté's 1962 epic version of The 300 Spartans, wrings enormous empathy from his surprisingly difficult role as Mr. Dean, the Englishman whose initial frostiness and distrust of the Sisters rapidly turns into a teasing fascination for their foibles and insecurities. Ostensibly the conduit through which Sister Clodagh learns about her new environment, Dean becomes the catalyst that will unleash buried desires and Vow-scattering rivalry. Farrar may have the same hair as Tommy Cooper and sport some quite ludicrous attire due to his having “gone native”, but if there is any certainty or conviction to be found in this secluded domain, then it surely emanates from him and him alone. Considering that the style of the day for romantic gestures and the showing of affection are now viewed as charming and outdated, there is much at work with Dean's relationships with the sisters that is complex and ahead of its time. His mischievous bestowing of the precocious minx, Kanchi, to their Order is an ambiguous taster of the circumstances that will follow. Even if she, herself, is not the snake in Garden of Eden that we may initially think she will be, it seems clear that Mr. Dean, in fact, is the unwitting serpent that will play Freudian havoc with our chaste ladies. But Farrar, even given the statutes of the day with regards to British leading men, is able to demonstrate admirable depth with just his eyes, an expression - or lack of one, for that matter - and with his clever, modulated interaction with Kerr that goes from baiting to poignant release. American Cinema would have ladled on the melodramatics and promoted, all too eagerly with keening strings and a rousing fanfare or two, the feelings between the two that Powell and Pressburger stifle as surely as if they'd employed a battalion of Grenadier Guards to hold them back. But the underlying core of simmering affection is still wonderfully conveyed by the things that you don't see. “I give you till the rains break,” Dean ominously informs Sister Clodagh when they first meet, leading to one of the period's most poetic and painfully restrained denouements.

    “I told this was no place to put a nunnery. There's something in the atmosphere that makes things seem exaggerated ...”

    But, for me, the most memorable character in the film is Sister Ruth. Somehow, I cannot believe how actress Kathleen Byron lapsed into a career that was dominated by television and not the big screen. Her awesome power and sheer presence is something that simply begs to be unleashed upon a wider canvas. Approaching her character with what must have been a degree of both excitement and trepidation, she brilliantly conveys the almost bipolar extremes of psychological makeup. A brief glance at her biography reveals that, after this critically lauded performance, Hollywood sought to typecast her as a neurotic, which partly explains her self-exile to endless small-screen crime dramas and murder mysteries, but also proves that, even here, she didn't quite shake the looming shadow of Sister Ruth. And if the transformation of Kerr's Clodagh between robe and bumpkin-clobber is stark, then the metamorphosis that Byron's Ruth undergoes is positively alarming. Somehow, you instinctively know that she is itching to remove those robes and that what she will reveal will be shocking and alluring but, even so, when the moment finally comes, the seductive temptress that blossoms with liberated and almost savage abandon, is so dangerously motivated that suddenly anything could happen. With Byron's frightening and hyper-sexual performance - there's even a wild lesbian-tainted face-off thrown into the already over-cooked pot - Black Narcissus shifts up a gear or two and, by the climax, one of the most audacious set-pieces has rippled through the soul of the movie.

    “You never wanted me here! You're all jealous of me!”

    So many visual components and vignettes stick in the mind. The little Tibetan ponies puttering about the foothills with what seem like ludicrous Gulliver-sized riders sitting astride them; the heart-lurching sheer drop beneath the nuns whenever they ring the great bell; the sage-old Holy Man who never leaves his hilltop meditative vantage-point and never speaks nor moves; the blanket of purple and pink cloud that undulates below the feet of the nuns on their high-rise pinnacle; the manic little caretaker/mistress of the palace cackling and grinning like a mad old crone from one of Universal's vintage chillers; the tentative approach of the little interpreter as he brings a glass of milk to a clearly deranged Sister Ruth. But the greatest moment comes via two tremendous confrontations - composer Brian Easdale's ethereal choir competing against the rhythm of the tribal drums whilst two soul-stricken women - one applying luscious red lipstick and leering with malignant desire whilst the other obstinately, and with futility, reads from the Bible - sit in silent war with one another at the top of the world. Such a sequence is both literary and cinematic to an extraordinary degree, and its effect is a powerhouse of broken wills and shattered philosophies that won't soon be forgotten.

    Elsewhere, The Thief Of Baghdad, himself, Sabu, puts in a great performance as the Young General, the Prince of the realm who desires to better himself and virtually begs his way into the nun's school, carrying with him his own highly prioritised class curriculum to make him an educated and worldly-wise modern man. Curiously, when watching the film now, I can't help but think of Johnny Depp's swarthy appearance as Captain Jack Sparrow when I see Sabu's close-ups, though! The very young Jean Simmons - still carrying some puppy-fat, in fact - (who would go on to play the awesome Virinia whom anybody, let alone Spartacus, would go to the cross for) is wonderfully arrogant and, indeed, slutty as Mr. Dean's trick of a gift to the nuns, Kanchi. Rather obviously tanned and stuck with a quite unsightly nose-piercing, she is, nevertheless, enormously sexy in her bangles, beads, sari and exotic colours. Another of the film's daring scenes ensues when, rescued from the lash, she slowly rises to kneel before her saviour, the Young General and loiters provocatively at a certain level. Elements such as this flavour the movie with all the aromas under the sun, managing to ensure a timeless quality that perplexes, pleases and plays with us constantly.

    “It's this place ... with its strange atmosphere and new people ...”

    Symbolism is rife throughout, aided no end by the superlative, and Oscar-nabbing cinematography from Jack Cardiff, who would find a way to shoot and light Deborah Kerr in such a way that only Freddie Francis would improve upon to even more dazzling effect in Jack Clayton's The Innocents. The depiction of the descent into madness is wonderfully foreshadowed by those epic vertiginous views down the side of the mountain. Nun's faces and eyes are illuminated within the shadows of crosses and silhouettes play kiss-and-tell, truth-or-dare as they dance about the fascinating sets. The tapestries and paintings that depict the old “House Of Women” that the palace used to be hang like decadent warnings upon the walls until Clodagh has them removed, and there are a couple of moments when the phallic nature of banisters or statuary seem almost irresistible to the nuns. Look for the great horror film image of a seemingly disembodied hand clasping a post appears in the foreground whilst unwitting activity takes place further into the deep-focus image.

    “I think you can see too far. I look out there and then I can't see the potato I'm planting. And, after a bit, it doesn't seem to matter if I plant it or not.”

    Whilst many like to cite the socio-political observations of British Imperialism - authoritarian, power-based rules and rigmarole colliding with established lifestyles and a more primitive culture become little stabbing conceits that add texture to the clash of wills and souls - I much prefer the film's more overt theme of mental and spiritual fracture. Although only the fierce final act descends into physical madness and jeopardy, the overall tone of escalating uncertainty, guilt and unease is more akin to the psychological thriller than anything else and, in this respect, Black Narcissus is much better than many films that have been developed with that genre in mind all along. Almost from the word go, we get the impression that this will not be a happy sortie for the sisters and no matter how much frivolity and even comedic interludes ensue during the movie's more languid and entertaining phases, there is never once the notion that things will deviate from a desperate, fate-entwined destiny that will leave an indelible scar on all concerned. The unforgettable touch is that the closer to God the sisters physically get, the further away from Him they unavoidably become. This is a profound and eternally unfathomable quandary that few filmmakers, without resorting to cliché and more generic terms of reference, attempt to tackle. Powell and Pressburger would go on to celebrate humanity and the triumph of the spirit in other classic genre-combining productions - Powell would even take the madness and obsession of this story to even more controversial levels, himself, with the raw and uncompromising Peeping Tom - but, for me, Black Narcissus is the epitome of their mutual talents and, as far as I am concerned, their greatest collaboration.

    Visually and intellectually, the film is light and shadow, or, more precisely, the enigmatic limbo that marks the point at which the two extremes meet. It is a film that I could never tire of and yet, like all immortal thought-provokers, still find something new within its spellbinding tapestry every time.

    Perhaps that quote from The Bounty's Captain Bligh could be modified still further, for the place Powell and Pressburger create is just a set - a London-set at that - so, rather it is the film, itself, that bewitches, serenades and transforms us for, come the finale, none of us are quite the same.


    The Rundown

    OUT OF
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