Film 2019: Black Narcissus


As brilliant as last week’s They’re a Weird Mob was awful, Black Narcissus, adapted pretty faithfully from Rumer Godden’s 1939 novel, was inexplicaably omitted from the original Powell and Pressburger box-set when this was first released as a nine-disc set. I bought that first, and willingly bought up when this was re-issued as an eleven-disc set, just to have this film.

Black Narcissus is a landmark film, justly celebrated for its amazing cinematography, which won Jack Cardiff an Oscar. It’s also a marvel of filming and use of effects, given that the film is set in India, high in the mountains, with multiple outside scenes, yet not a minute of footage was shot outside England. Split screen shots of a technical standard astonishing for the present day, let alone 1948, and matte shots using highly detailed, massively convincing paintings on glass complete the illusion that the film has been shot on location.

But the film is more than just a miracle of technique. Right from the beginning, the story establishes a knot of tension that only grows tauter as the film progresses. It’s a shifting psychological drama composed of many elements within its simple plot – a small group of nuns are sent to establish a convent at Mopu: as predicted, they fail – as each of the central characters find themselves undergoing unexpected tests.

The film stars Deborah Kerr as Sister Clodagh, a firm, somewhat authoritarian Nun who, despite her young age, is sent to take charge at the Convent of Sister Faith. Four others go with her: Sister Phillippa (Flora Robson) to take charge of the gardens, Sister Briony (Judith Furse) the dispensary, Sister Blanche, known as Sister Honey (Jenny Laird), the school, and Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron) as…well, it’s not entirely clear what part Sister Ruth is going to play, except as the most highly-strung and unstable amongst the Nuns: she is included by Mother Dorothea for, outwardly, her own good, although one cannot but suspect a certain buck-passing in the decision, as well as a test for Sister Clodagh’s leadership abilities.

These are the Nuns, but they are not the only characters in the story. Esmond Knight, an Archers stock-player, browns up to play the Old General, the ruler of the province, gifter of the Convent, a former seraglio. David Farrar, tall, lean, mostly seen in shorts that emphasise his hairy legs, rude, practical, unbelieving, plays the General’s Agent, Mr Dean, responsible for everything the Nun’s need, and deeply offensive to Sister Clodagh just by showing the merest scepticism. Jean Simmons plays the 17 year old Kanchi, a native girl taken in by the Nuns: Simmons, also browned up, has no words to speak, she just exudes sexuality in every smouldering fibre of her body without once being explicit, a sexuality that is at once knowing and naive. And Sabu, the only native actor in the film, plays the Young General, heir to the Province, young, noble, proud and thunderously naive about everything around him: Kanchi sets her cap and everything else at him and you just know he’s not going to be able to resist.

And there’s May Hallatt as Angu Ayah, former housemaid to the seraglio, a chattering, skipping bundle of shrieking contempt for the Nuns, playing wonderfully OTT.

Throw these characters in and a story will come out of it, but both  Godden and the Archers are set upon a developing inevitability. From the first, the Nuns find things hard, the isolation, the thin air, the clear and distant views that exaggerate the world in which they are alone with only their own resources – and God – to rely upon. Dean gives them until the rains break.

Each loses their way. We see it quickly when Sister Clodagh starts to call Sister Blanche by her nick-name. Clodagh has joined the Order, in which vows have to be renewed annually, to escape a failed love-affair in a small Irish community. She has gone through bitterness and pain from her abandonment: for the first time in years she remembers the handsome, but ultimately faithless, Con.

Sister Phillipa remembers things she thought she had forgotten, things unnamed: she has planted an English garden of flowers rather than the vegetables that were to sustain the community. Sister Honey becomes so overwhelmed by the children. Only Sister Briony remains stable.

As for Sister Ruth, who was made intense and unstable by the mere casting of Kathleen Byron, it is quickly easy to see that here is a woman eaten up by sexual frustration. The lean Mr Dean sets her hormones buzzing from the moment he is gentle to her, recognising her desire to do well, immmediately after Sister Clodagh has reprimanded her for trying herself to save a woman bleeding to death instead of fetching Sister Briony.

Like Kanchi, Sister Ruth exudes sexuality, but Kanchi even as a ten year old could never be as naive as Ruth, who’s got it but doesn’t know what to do with it.

As the crisis develops, Ruth chooses not to renew her vows. She orders a smouldering maroon dress from Darjeeling, changes, makes up. She goes to Dean, throws herself at him, is repelled. She accuses Dean of being in love with Sister Clodagh. Angrily, he denies being in love with anyone. In saying this, he’s probably being truthful to his own understanding, but at the ennd we will see that something is within him: he has not escaped being changed.

Dean’s refusal sends Ruth over the edge. Denied expression in love, her emotions find their only other outlet, in jealousy, a pathological jealousy of Sister Clodagh. When the latter goes to ring the Morning Bell, situated on the edge of a precipice, a wild-eyed, pale-faced Ruth tries to push her off but falls herself into the Abyss.

This, then, is the end. The Nuns arrange to depart. At the last, Dean approaches Sister Clodagh. Despite his denial, he is going to very much miss her. But though their relationship has become decidedly more amicable, Sister Clodagh – who will go to another Convent where she will not be in charge, is nowhere near ro any thought of giving up her vows. She asks him to tend to the grave, and teases him that the rains have not yet come.

But as both ride away, in opposite directions, the rains begin, soft and then fierce. Dean mops his slightly-too-long hair and looks back, until the increasng rain dissolves any last sight of the Nuns.

Originally, the Archers had planned to end tthe movie with a scene back in Calcutta, Sister Clodagh confessing her failure to Mother Dorothea and bursting into tears. The scene was filmed, though it sems it was never printed, as Powell, seeing the rain scene, chose that as a better ending. Rightly so.

This is a magnificent film, full of subtleties that, if I were to describe them all, would take all day to discuss. Remember that Deborah Kerr and Kathleen Byron spend most of the film in their habits, full habits, head-dresses, ankle length white robes. Only their faces are visible, made pale by the lack of (visible) make-up and the billowing white habits. Deprived even of body-language, they perform with only their faces. And there are subtleties of word and thought in nearly every line.

In the end, the film may be seen as one about defeat. Indeed, filmed only a few months before India’s Independence, it has been compared symbollically to the end of the Raj. Whether this was intentional, or merely a subconscious reflection of the Zeitgeist, I can’t say, but in a film with these layers, I wouldn’t dount anything.

And then there was three:  three box-sets, one outstanding film in each.

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