Directors: Michael Powell/Emeric Pressburger
Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists
The Himalayas, during the final years of the British Empire. A group of Anglican nuns, led by the young Sister Clodagh, travel to a remote village in the Himalayas to establish a religious community under the patronage of a local General. The youngest Sister Superior, Clodagh’s seniors have doubts about her, whilst Clodagh doubts some of her own fellow nuns, including Sister Ruth, seen as a ‘problem’. Dean, the local agent, warns that this is no place for a nunnery. Dean has an emotional effect on Sisters Clodagh and Ruth. Clodagh begins to recall her romantic rejection in Ireland, which led her to become a nun, whilst Ruth falls in love with Dean and becomes more emotionally unstable.
The General’s son studies at the school but becomes attracted to, and then involved with a local Indian girl, Kanchi, of a lesser caste. As Ruth becomes more ill and irrational, she believes Clodagh is trying to force her out of the order so that she can have Dean to herself. Other sisters are losing faith and want to be transferred. When a sick boy is unable to be saved, the locals blame the nuns and abandon them. Ruth then attempts to kill Clodagh but dies in the process. The nuns finally leave this location.
One of the finest examples of the Powell/Pressburger canon, ‘Black Narcissus’ could have a credible claim as one of the greatest films to ever emerge from these shores. Produced during an intensively creative peak (1946-1948), which also included ‘The Red Shoes’ and ‘A Matter of Life and Death’, ‘Black Narcissus’ is a melodrama of the highest order, complete with dazzling use of colour and cinematography, utilises studio resources to recreate the Himalayas from Pinewood, and bursts with passion and emotional torment.
From the start, there is no pretence that the religious community that is being established will succeed. There is overt suspicion immediately, from a current Sister Superior who does not feel Clodagh is ready or experienced enough for this role to Dean’s warnings about the environment, that there is something here that makes everything exaggerated. The ‘palace’ used for the nunnery was the General’s house for his numerous women, which suggests a place that arouses strong emotions. The nuns all have turbulent emotional backgrounds, including Clodagh, reeling from an affair that turned sour. Ruth has been a problem to the Church for some time, and her instability turns into full-blown erotomania in the dizzying Himalayas. It probably is not just something in the air, but the effect of Dean himself. These women have suppressed their emotions in the name of religion, but interaction with a sensuous man who is responsible for them awakens these passions; even Clodagh’s judgement is called into question. Powell merges these passions and the environment to exaggerated levels to demonstrate the downfall of the religious order.
Part of the success of creating such a dizzying environment where people lose their senses is paradoxically because Powell and Pressburger create such an obviously artificial world. This was no doubt partly because of the difficulties and costs involved in location shooting. Melodramas arguably work finest when not immersed in reality, but by using imagination and innovation to reflect the mindsets of their protagonists and the worlds they inhabit. ‘Black Narcissus’ features extensive use of painted backdrops for the Himalayan settings and scale models for the exteriors of the convent. There seems little effort to disguise the lack of reality of these settings, but then this is a world where people are acting out of the ordinary.
Although nominally Clodagh is the film’s central character and the film’s central theme is her improbable attempts to establish a religious order in the Himalayas, Powell and Pressburger shift their emphasis around midway through the film to focus on Ruth and her growing instability. Her situation then begins to drive the film’s narrative. ‘Black Narcissus’ then becomes even more stylistically imaginative than previously as the directors explore Ruth’s inner emotions, which rise to the surface. During her hysteria, there is a greater emphasis on close ups than ever before, capturing the sweat on her forehead with such microscopic detail; her fever is not just caused by the climate but by repressed sexual passions. One of the iconic moments of the film reflect her final rejection of her vows; a scene between her and Clodagh. Ruth is wearing secular clothing but applies make up rather deliberately and slowly in front of Clodagh and is shot with an exceptionally intense close up on her mouth. Now she is no longer part of the religious order, her sexual passions explode, as shown in the subsequent scene with Dean where she tells him she loves him. As her jealousy and hysteria escalates, she faints, superbly demonstrated as the screen is filled red (which is also used in Hitchcock’s ‘Marnie’, whether consciously or otherwise) before fading to black.
‘Black Narcissus’ was adapted from a novel by Rumer Godden, who also wrote the ‘The River’, from which the Jean Renoir film was adapted. Both have much in common; both are set in the dying days of the British Empire, both focus on the passions aroused by the arrival of a sensual man and both feature adjusting to a foreign land. Both are also amongst the finest examples of films shot in Technicolor, though crucially whereas ‘The River’ was shot on location, ‘Black Narcissus’ was almost entirely shot in the studio. The effect is so wondrous that Jack Cardiff justifiably secured the Academy Award from Best Cinematography. ‘Black Narcissus’ is a film where the collaborative talents involved were at the top of their game; from the aforementioned directors and cinematographer, but also in the acting stakes. Deborah Kerr and David Farrar impress as Clodagh and Dean respectively but the real star on show is Kathleen Byron as Ruth. One of the treasures of British cinema, this is as good as filmmaking gets.