Gugu Mbatha-Raw stars in director Amma Asante's period drama, which is based on the true story of Georgian Britain's first mixed-race aristocrat, Dido Belle.
On Film4: 23 Jan 9:00PM
Classic thriller from Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger set in a remote Himalayan convent. Stars Deborah Kerr
Nuns get a pretty raw deal in the movies. In Ken Russell's The Devils, they're portrayed as hysterical harpies more profane than sacred. In The Magdalene Sisters, they're depicted as vicious old crones who violently abuse their charges. And in The Sound Of Music, they come across as annoyingly winsome women who believe the advance of National Socialism can be halted simply by singing about a few of your favourite things.
The ladies of the cloth in Black Narcissus have a pretty tough time of it, too. By turns prim, formidable, gullible and stark-raving mad, they aren't the sort of people you'd go to for comfort or religious counsel. But as odd as they are, it's these characters who elevate a poorly plotted melodrama to the heights of greatness. Indeed, a clutch of great performances combined with Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's fabulous approach to filmmaking make Black Narcissus essential.
Adapted by Powell and Pressburger from Rumer Godden's novel, Black Narcissus sees the Calcutta-based Mother Dorothea (Robson) send a small order of sisters to a new convent in the Himalayas. With the very proper Sister Clodagh (Kerr) put in charge of the operation, the band set about turning their new residence - a former brothel - into a school and hospital. But life in this remote corner of the world proves difficult with Clodagh attracting the attention of Mr Dean (Farrar), the local ruler's agent, who in turn wins a place in the affections of the warped Sister Ruth (Byron). And as the sexual tension slowly eats away at this trio, so the thin air and isolation takes a hold on the other members of the convent.
On the face of it, Black Narcissus has a flawed script - a few of the characters are underdeveloped, some of the sub-plots seem to lead nowhere and the storyline as a whole isn't especially well balanced. Many of these failings might stem from the source novel, which is hardly a literary classic. However, when you see what Powell and Pressburger do with the story and how Deborah Kerr and co interpret the characters, the screenplay's deficiencies don't seem particularly important. Indeed, in the case of Black Narcissus, the plot is merely a device upon which to hang the most magnificent things.
Black Narcissus is a truly astonishing film. Made almost 50 years ago, it's dated nowhere near as badly as many of its contemporaries. Sure, it's replete with plenty of stiff upper lip, but Powell and Pressburger's film is immune to the ravages of the time thanks to the directors' unique approach and Jack Cardiff's ravishing photography. The movie feels like the product of another planet rather than a different age. The attention to detail is also remarkable, with the sets and backdrops suggesting that this was a film shot on location, rather than one that was cobbled together at Pinewood Studios.
The performances are equally beguiling. Besides Deborah Kerr managing to make repression seem rather sexy, Kathleen Byron, a black-face Jean Simmons and the great Flora Robson give object lessons in playing insanity, sluttyness and serenity. Black Narcissus also features a charming performance from Sabu as a local prince whose choice of aftershave gives the film its name, and good work from David Farrar.
By turns very amusing - the general (Knight) gives a priceless explanation for bulk-buying sausages - and very frightening, Black Narcissus wears many hats, and sports each as well as the next. Of course, given its age, this is a film that ought to feel as outdated as the British Raj. But by tackling all manner of subjects and embracing many aspects of filmmaking, Powell and Pressburger created a film that still feels light years ahead of the opposition.
In a nutshell: Black Narcissus is a film to rival Powell and Pressburger's very best work. And since said best work includes A Matter Of Life And Death, The Life And Death Of Colonel Blimp and I Know Where I'm Going, this is very high praise indeed.
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