Black Narcissus – 1946
Directors – Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
Starring – Deborah Kerr, and David Ferrar
Heading into this film, before I knew anything else about it other than the photo Netflix uses, I assumed that I wouldn’t like it. A movie about nuns? Booooorrring! Of course I wouldn’t like it. But then it began, and the Archers logo came up (the people who made The Red Shoes, and The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp), and suddenly there was this chance that this film could be something more, much more than what is immediately present on the surface. As it happens, Black Narcissus was an austere, bland, and rather unimpressive yet beautiful looking journey through the wilds of British colonial India.
The story goes thusly…A group of relatively inexperienced nuns gets sent by their leadership, to India, charged with taking up residence in an abandoned palace high in the mountains, and bringing the light of the lord to the local heathens. The usual set of barriers present themselves in the form of cultural misunderstandings, a native Englishman versed in the ways of the locals, and the inner strife that comes when questioning one’s own…blah, blah, blah. It doesn’t really matter, you won’t remember it in a few minutes, as I barely remember it now.
Plain, slow and for the first half nearly monochromatic, Black Narcissus tries to reach for the subtlety and distinction of Blimp and Red Shoes but was just never able to make it happen. Deborah Kerr, who was so very arresting and vivid in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, staggers through this movie as emotionally one-dimensional as a tertiary character in a Dickens novel. She doesn’t really change from one end of the movie to the other, aside from softening slightly to the brash Mr. Dean (David Ferrar), native Brit, envoy to the local royal government, and all around one note character.
Speaking of Mr. Dean. It seemed like no one could decide quite what his character flaw/personality was going to be beforehand. Is he a drunk, a cynic, or is he simply down on the snooty, dismissive behavior of the nuns to the locals? Rather than giving him a set of characteristics, and building upon them, they decided to make him inebriated at times, moody at others, indignant and rude at still others, but without the rhyme and reason that would indicate he was a flesh and blood creation rather than a ham-fisted plot device.
Where the Brits seemed unduly rude and dismissive of their hosts, the Indian characters in the story, both Generals (young and old), the orphaned girl, as well as all of the children and villagers, all seem completely engaging and willing to learn about their guests without judging or strife. Perhaps it’s because I come from a day and age that is more aware of and accepting of different cultures and personalities, but watching a film that comes out of the 1940’s makes western race relations seem positively barbaric and out of touch.
The one stand out, in terms of performance, is Kathleen Byron as Sister Ruth, the troubled, sickly sister who seems unable to handle the rigors and harsh conditions of the high mountain palace. It actually wasn’t so much her performance, as it was the lack of performance. Byron channelled Jack Nicholson’s work from the Shining, (or the other way around I suppose) all maniacal smiles and dangerous eyes, staring into space and providing her character with just enough vacancy to make her dangerous. Sister Ruth is the most tightly wound of the nuns, and when she is pushed to her breaking point, she is unable to hold up. It’s a shame really that she really didn’t have much impact until about two-thirds of the way through the film, but once she starts going, she is the most magnetic thing on-screen.
Similarly, halfway through the film, the color scheme begins to change from the sterile white robes and light-colored walls, into the rich swathes of color indicating lust, danger, and fear. Beige and cream coloring gives way to deep shadowy reds, blues, greens, and oranges. It’s really at this last third of the film that it becomes worth watching. So much so, that it makes you wish the beginning part of the film was as interestingly composed, and executed as the latter part, although it doesn’t do much to change the fact that the story is a very dated one about the maddening effects of bringing religion to the uncivilized wilds
Despite my negative impression of the film, I did notice quite a lot of influence in a director whose films I truly do admire. Wes Anderson, seems to have taken cues from the entirety of the Archers body of work, and for The Darjeeling Limited story cues from Black Narcissus in particular. For example, the dramatic, rich use of color used as a backdrop against which every story plays out in all of Anderson’s films. The diorama like composition Anderson utilizes, is equal parts Powell/Pressburger and Kubrick, but to his credit, Anderson does a much better job finding cohesion in all the disparate elements.
When it all comes down to it, Black Narcissus isn’t all that good, and certainly not worthy of its place on this list. Sorry, Archers fans, I know it’s blasphemy to speak ill of saints Powell and Pressburger, but in this instance I think it’s justified.
“Not as good as Sister Act” – Ashley