Black Narcissus Blu-ray Review

by Chris McEneany
Movies & TV Review

6

Black Narcissus Blu-ray Review
SRP: £19.00

Picture

ITV DVD present Black Narcissus on Blu-ray in its original aspect ratio of 1.33:1 encoded in 1080p - and it looks incredible.

Admittedly, every time I watch this movie, it takes me a good few minutes to get used to the flickering contrast and hue-shift inherent in the original print but - and this BD transfer is no different in that respect - but, once I have, the effect becomes unnoticeable and the picture tells its own story. Already having seen the light of day from Criterion and on a splendid French 2-discer, Black Narcissus has also appeared in a couple of differing guises on TV, usually with boosted contrast, combing, edge-enhancement and mushed detail. This ITV transfer is an absolute revelation when compared to these earlier treatments.

Colour has been boosted in my opinion. The primaries literally “pop” from the screen, with the usual suspects of red, green and blue really captivating and bold to behold. Just look at the golden hues of the sunsets suffusing the palace or, very early on, the sight of the General's radiant red attire and its scintillating adornment of incandescent gems and gold braid. This image, alone, reveals that it is not just the mountain vistas that are breathtaking. The undulating clouds (special visual effects, of course) burning in the sunlight and the exquisite greens of the lowland jungle contrast marvellously with the thin-air greys and whites of the stone palace and the spartan robes of the sisters. The blood smeared across Sister Ruth after she has treated the stricken woman is bright and eye-catching, likewise the blazing colours of the tapestries and paintings. The flashbacks to Sister Clodagh's Irish home are lavishly depicted too, with some wild reflections from the sun playing about the surface of the lake and some vivid green foliage. Skin-tones, which are surprisingly consistent considering the flickering of the film-stock, are much more realistic and natural-looking than on any previous version that I have seen. The dour, blood-drained visage of the Mother Superior near the start and the pale, wind-blown faces of the nuns atop their mountain incredible in comparison to the tans of David Farrar, Sabu and Kanchi. Once again, it is the spot-on balance of light and shade that comes to dominate and to provide the lingering imagery. Once night falls and the last rays of the sun bathe the palace a golden or russet hue, the rich shadows create a world that Hammer Films would painstakingly recreate with their classic horrors. Candlelight becomes a means of expression that the transfer is now able to allow you to fully appreciate. Where once the picture either softened or dampened-down its darker elements, the blacks are now deeper and hugely more demonstrative, really accentuating the drama. Fall-off to grey is not apparent during these more nocturnal and intense sequences either.

Detail is now terrifically rendered. Where once the image hid the little things - the lonely tear from Sister Philippa when her illicit gardening has been discovered, the patterns on garments, the delineation on leaves and the striations on rock, the grain on wood panelling etc - they are now offered up as clear as day for all to see. Facial detail is much more immediate and the background elements also appear with considerably more clarity. Those painted backdrops - actually black and white photographs of the locale hand-coloured and blown-up - are never going to fool you, but there is more revealed within their design now to compensate ... the lush foliage down at the bottom of that classic drop, for instance. The teeth and gums on the little yawning pony at the end have never so clearly revealed either, nor the red rings around Sister Ruth's blazing eyes.

Realistically, the age of the print still comes to light when sudden transitions from dark to light occur - one cut from gloom to a resplendent jungle as the Young General rides past is initially blurred and there are several moments when the periphery of the image can seem softer than the interior. There are also some tiny elements of damage in the perfectly acceptable and, indeed, expected form of nicks and pops and dirt specks, but these really are only minor and the image, as a whole, is captivating. Edge enhancement is still apparent in some shots, though it is worth noting that the glimmering around some characters and objects when set against the awesome skyline are down to the primitive processed-shot effects. I did detect some faint red or green trailing on some motion during a couple of early scenes, but neither this nor any of the other detriments mentioned take anything away from what is, undoubtedly, the film's most glorious and superlative image on home video.

An amazing transfer that garners a very strong 8 out of 10.

Black Narcissus

Sound

To be frank, the sound for Black Narcissus, coming as 2-channel DD mono, is absolutely fantastic. The track is clear, loud and superbly presented without distortion and only the most minimal element of background hiss. Depth and detail are actually staggering good, totally belying the fact that it is of such a vintage.

With the score and the dialogue crystal clear and the atmospheric wind that continually whistles and moans around the heights providing what amounts to its own soundtrack for the film, Black Narcissus sounds positively buoyant and alive. The ringing of the bell and the persistent and ominous beating of the jungle drums sound delightful. There is none of that “brittleness” to the speech - something that tends to come across even more when it comes to British films, incidentally - and the whole design which, for its time, was actually very detailed and innovative considering that it didn't have big battles tearing through it, is strong and full of presence.

In comparison to the improved picture, there isn't much more to be said about the audio, I'm afraid. But, rest assured, this is definitely a soundtrack that even Mother Superior would approve of. Brilliantly cleaned-up and presented with clarity and vigour, thus, even given the comparative limitations of the mono design, this gets a winning 8 out of 10.

Black Narcissus

Extras

Naturally, this is where it hurts.

ITV, having done a sterling job with the AV presentation of the film, severely drop the ball with the overall package. Considering that numerous other releases over the years have been bolstered by considerable extras, it is a crying shame that so little has been provided here.

All we get are the original theatrical trailer and a 24-minute Profile Of Black Narcissus that those with American machines will probably not be able to play. Both my US PS3 and US Samsung fail to activate the feature, whilst the film, itself and the trailer play just fine. No region-coding warnings flash up, but I have it on good authority that this is, indeed, the reason and this retrospective observation is actually PAL encoded.

This is a film that I have several copies of - each time one comes out it is touted as having the best image yet, so I just can't resist obtaining them - but, the best AV transfer of all notwithstanding, this dearth of extras is a virtually sacrilegious oversight. With Criterion embracing Blu-ray, it seems highly likely that a features-packed version will come along in 1080p one day.

Black Narcissus
Even considering their incredible canon of classic films, Black Narcissus is an extreme high-water mark for Powell and Pressburger. Incisive class observation, impeccable characterisation, frothy, confrontational dialogue and a simply mesmerising atmosphere of discord and of the uncanny, their adaptation of Godden's book is devoutly cinematic, psychologically profound and truly gripping in a uniquely airy style that only the two iconic filmmakers could pull off. With performances that are simply electric - Kerr is touchingly troubled and a delight in the struggle with her own suppressed emotions, whilst Byron is astonishing as the metamorphosing Sister Ruth - and a mood that is, at once, beatific and eerie, Black Narcissus justifiably ranks as one of the greatest movies ever produced.

And ITV's Blu-ray offers us an awesome transfer of this visually haunting masterpiece. Even the sound quality is a treat that rewards with its depth and eloquence. In fact, the only complaint you could possibly have with this release is the woeful lack of special features. Alas, with Criterion on the BD trail, this edition could well be surpassed, leaving fans - just like me - no doubt having to fork out for yet another version. Still, for the time being - and especially now that its original asking price has dropped considerably - this edition is well worth getting hold of.

A film of staggering quality with the best AV that I have ever seen it receive. Very highly recommended even if the lack of extras drop its overall score down.

Black Narcissus

Scores

Movie

10

Picture Quality

.
.
8

Sound Quality

.
.
8

Extras

.
.
.
.
.
.
.
3

Overall

.
.
8
8
AVForumsSCORE
OUT OF
10

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