I was just recently writing about how I thought Michael Powell was a highly underappreciated director (to see the post, click here), so I decided to go ahead and review one of his finest films, Black Narcissus.
It’s like the old joke, “Is it alright to kiss a nun?” “Sure, so long as you don’t get into the habit.” Black Narcissus is all about the lives of nuns, but more specifically, it’s about their sense of propriety, of decency, and how it’s their strengths that so often turn into weakness. This all plays out in a remote area of the Himalayas, where the sisters elect themselves to care for the children of the nearby towns and teach them. Of course, it’s not solely about nuns. I think the modern viewer will identify with the characters since all of us, no matter how rebellious and crude we might try to be, have a puritanical side of ourselves that can make our lives difficult.
This 1947 film is directed by Michael Powell with his frequent collaborator Emeric Pressburger. From what I understand, Powell was the romantic, somewhat kooky visionary, and Pressburger was the man who wrote the scripts that kept Powell grounded. Separate, they were both good. Powell had directed a number of great films before teaming up with Pressburger, such as The Edge of the World. If you have the time and don’t mind watching old films from the 30s that haven’t been adequately remastered, I’d recommend The Edge of the World. If you don’t like black and white, then this is the Powell film for you. Pressburger wrote a ton of scripts in his career, and wrote a book that Fred Zinneman later turned into the film Behold A Pale Horse. Together, they are greater than the sum of their parts, and that’s saying something.
Powell and Pressburger would make about twenty films together. I haven’t seen all that many because Netflix only carries some of their work, but from what I have seen, the films are all wonderful in their own way. I’d recommend Black Narcissus the most to someone who hasn’t watched them yet, although it’s not actually their best. This one is a good introduction to their work.
The film has a fantastic cast of British actors, with the lead role going to Deborah Kerr. She’s another artist who went underappreciated. She might be well known in the UK, but in America no one seems to have heard of her, which is unfortunate because she had a stronger career than many actresses of her time. She managed to star in a whole host of classic films, like the spooky horror classic The Innocents (based on Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw), starred alongside Marlon Brando, John Gielgud and James Mason in Joseph L. Mankiewics screen treatment of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, and acted alongside Cary Grant and Robert Mitchum in Stanley Donen’s The Grass is Greener. In this movie though, she’s forced into nun’s habit for most of the film. She plays her role well, and doesn’t seem itchy in her costume, as if she really were a nun, or joined a convent for the role.
The male lead is played by David Farrar, an actor who’d go on to make The Small Back Room with Powell and Pressburger several years later. Here, he plays this edgy, cynical character, who, in contrast to the high-minded nuns, often appears as a Mephistophelean character, influencing these nuns into voyaging into temptation. Other scenes though he seems very kind and good, showing something of the dual nature of man.
Kathleen Byron also stars in it as a nun who, from the very outset, seems to have strayed among thorns. I haven’t yet seen anything else with Kathleen, but I’ll make a point to because, as good as the two aforementioned stars are, Kathleen Byron steals the show. Kerr and Farrar’s characters are locked into stasis, she is blessedly devoted to the cloth, and he hasn’t left the colonies long enough to remember what polite English society is like. Kathleen Byron though is the character who grows, who changes, and even if she’s not the most upstanding character, she is the most human. At the start, she seems simply on edge, but as the film progresses, she gets more and more angsty as she begins to develop feelings for Farrar and antipathy towards Kerr.
I realize that a reviewer is not supposed to be always positive, but with this film, I can honestly say I love just about everything about it. The color is fantastic; it uses the old Hollywood color method where everything looks as vibrant as an oil painting (another film remarkable in this respect is Vertigo). The principle actors, as I said before, are good. The directing is exceptional. I think casual film fans, cineastes, and film students could all benefit by sitting down for two hours and watching this. For those of you who find the art-house films I usually recommend boring, I’d like to point out that this isn’t art-house at all. It’s mainstream, but done artistically, meaning the pace, the dialogue and everything is put together for entertainment and enlightenment. The reason why I say it’s also a good one to watch for film students is for Powell’s directing. Some of the shots are very complex, and very beautiful.
If I had to find faults, I’d say one for me would have to be the casting of Jean Simmons. She plays a young Indian girl who’s always causing trouble. Some of you might recognize Jean Simmons as the young Estella from David Lean’s Great Expectations. Some of the roles in the film are played by actual Indian actors, so I’m wondering, why couldn’t they find an actual Indian girl to play the part?
If I haven’t already convinced you to see this, I’ll lastly point out that, although much of the film is a drama, the ending is absolutely intense, rivalling any thrilling scene Hitchcock ever directed if you ask me.
If you have Netflix, this one’s currently available for streaming. Unfortunately, this is a Criterion movie. Criterion re-releases and remasters many of the best films ever made, and usually include good bonus features and informative pamphlets, but they charge an awful lot. Black Narcissus is $30. I’d recommend if anything you just sign up to Netflix for a month for half the cost and watch this and as many movies possible during that time.
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