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Movie Review: ‘Black Narcissus’

Powell and Pressburger’s Black Narcissus

By Joe Bendel Created: January 5, 2013 Last Updated: January 6, 2013
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Deborah Kerr (L) and David Farrar in “Black Narcissus,” a dramatic film about five nuns who open a convent in the Himalayas and who meet with conflict and tension in trying to adapt to their new surroundings.(Courtesy of Film Forum)

Deborah Kerr (L) and David Farrar in “Black Narcissus,” a dramatic film about five nuns who open a convent in the Himalayas and who meet with conflict and tension in trying to adapt to their new surroundings.(Courtesy of Film Forum)

For many, the Himalayas are a region of fundamental spiritual significance. In contrast, an order of Anglican nuns will find their faith deeply shaken by their ill-fated assignment to a remote Indian mountain.

Altitude, isolation, and angst wreak havoc on the sisters’ esprit de corps in Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s newly restored “Black Narcissus,” which opens Jan. 4 at Film Forum, inaugurating the New Year with a classic worthy of the big screen.

High atop a forbidding peak, a prince once built a palace for his harem. Standing like a monument to the kingdom’s faded glory, only an eccentric old caretaker lives there, with her birds and the ghosts of bygone days.

Periodically, the local general entices Westerners up to the palace. An order of monks tried to make a go of it there, but soon slinked off in humiliated defeat. The nuns are determined to do better.

St. Faith will be a convent, school, and medical clinic serving the needs of the local villagers. Sister Clodagh will be the mother superior, the youngest in the history of her order—a fact she is well aware of.

She will be taking a handful of sisters with her, including the matronly Sister Briony and the troubled Sister Ruth. It is Mother Dorothea’s hope that Ruth better thrives in a smaller group. Right, that sounds plausible. Either way, she is Sister Clodagh’s problem now—she will indeed be a burden.

As soon as she lays eyes on the general’s Western business agent, Mr. Dean, she displays an inclination to act out. The confines of the wind-buffeted palace 9,000 feet above sea level only exacerbate her erratic behavior. However, the strange environment affects all the sisters, bringing back all the old memories they thought they had successfully buried.

Based on Rumer Godden’s novel, “Narcissus” in many ways operates as cautionary corrective to the colonialist impulse. Though never overtly supernatural, there seems be ancient energies surrounding the convent-palace that are stronger than the sisters’ faith.

Filmed old-school style entirely on specially built studio sets, “Narcissus” has an eerie, almost fantastical vibe. Academy Award-winning set designer Alfred Junge’s Himalayan backdrops might just be the most effective matte paintings used in cinema until Ralph McQuarrie’s classic work graced the original “Star Wars.”

Deborah Kerr standing on a ledge in a still from the dramatic film “Black Narcissus.” (Courtesy of Film Forum)

Deborah Kerr standing on a ledge in a still from the dramatic film “Black Narcissus.” (Courtesy of Film Forum)

Still arguably the greatest Technicolor cinematographer, Jack Cardiff was probably the only director of photography working at the time capable of rendering the film’s lush colors and evocative lighting.

The cast is pretty great too, starting with Deborah Kerr as Sister Clodagh. The way her relationship with David Farrar’s Mr. Dean evolves from mutual contempt into a painful regret and yearning is quietly compelling. However, his 1970s NBA short shorts are just all kinds of disturbing—and inappropriate given the Himalayan climate.

The unforgettable Kathleen Byron is a proverbial hot mess as Sister Ruth, while Dame Flora Robson adds a genuine note of pathos as the gentle Sister Philippa.

Far deeper than the “Lost Horizon”-ish exoticism some might expect, “Black Narcissus” really is a great film. It is also a masterful example of how mood can be controlled through visual artistry. Highly recommended, ths restored version runs for a week (Jan. 4–10) at Film Forum in New York.

Black Narcissus

Directors: Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
Cast: Deborah Kerr, David Farrar, Flora Robson, Kathleen Byron
Running Time: 1 hour, 40 minutes

Rating: 4.5 / 5

Joe Bendel writes about independent film and lives in New York. To read his most recent articles, please visit http://jbspins.blogspot.com

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