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Synopsis: A group of nuns, headed by the young and inexperienced Sister Clodagh, is sent to an isolated region in the Himalayas to establish a convent with a school and a clinic. Barely able to communicate with the locals, they must rely almost entirely on the estate's manager, Mr. Dean, an Englishman "gone native." The challenges the nuns face run the gamut from the damaging effects of high altitude on their health to a populace set in its ways, encroaching memories of their past lives before taking their vows, and even madness.
Black Narcissus (1947) represents a high point of the fertile collaboration between writer Emeric Pressburger and director Michael Powell, and it remains among the most beautifully designed color films ever made. The opening shots of the film depict Buddhist monks blowing a pair of large horns mounted on an intricately carved wooden stand decorated with gold leaf. The ornate, even sensuous quality of these images is juxtaposed with the more subdued color scheme and austere design of the convent in Calcutta that appears after the credit sequence, reflecting the ascetic life of the nuns. This visual contrast sets up the religious, cultural and psychological conflicts that follow.
One remarkable example of Powell's "dramaturgy of color" occurs after Sister Clodagh confronts Sister Ruth: the film cuts directly to images of flowers in bloom, accompanied by a sharp burst of orchestral music on the soundtrack. The almost overwhelming impact of this sequence beautifully conveys the psychological toll that the surroundings are taking on the nuns. But most striking of all, perhaps, is the nearly wordless struggle between Sister Ruth and Sister Clodagh at the end of the film. Powell conceived this sequence in terms of opera, with the actors' movements guided by Brian Easdale's lush score. During rehearsal and shooting he used a piano track to set the mood and mark precise timings for the actors. Powell's approach to this scene opened the way for the radical stylization of his subsequent films The Red Shoes (1948) and The Tales of Hoffmann (1951).
Rumer Godden (1907-1998), the noted British writer on whose novel the film is based, was born in Sussex, England. As a child Godden moved with her parents to India and lived in Assam and Bengal before returning to England to complete her studies. During the 1930s she began to publish her first novels, achieving a critical and popular breakthrough with Black Narcissus. Many critics have interpreted the novel in retrospect as a commentary on the ultimate failure of the British Empire's colonial project in India. In some respects, Godden would seem to play into stereotyped notions of the "East," with its supposed sensuality and narcissistic self-regard. This is embodied most clearly in the title, which refers to the perfume with which Dilip, the young General, douses himself. Similarly, in Powell and Pressburger's film, we first see the old General as he is gazing into an ornate mirror in the palace. However, both Godden and the filmmakers suggest that it is in fact a dual cultural misunderstanding that causes the convent to fail. At one point the old General blithely orders that the nuns be given tins of sausages, under the assumption that it is a typically "European" food. Later, Sister Ruth says dismissively of the locals: "They all look alike to me." Rumer Godden was said to prefer Jean Renoir's The River (1951) as an adaptation of her work, though Powell and Pressburger's film does retain the essentials of the book's plot and dialogue. The main difference between the film and novel of Black Narcissus is in style and tone: the film tends toward visually striking, at times melodramatic effects, whereas Godden's prose style is notably restrained.
As has often been observed, not a single foot of the film was shot in India. The Mopu palace-convent was constructed in Pinewood Studios, with matte paintings and painted backdrops providing views of the Himalayan landscape. Leonardslee, an extensive complex of gardens in Horsham, West Sussex, served as the valley below Mopu. (Leonardslee is open to visitors to this day.) The flashbacks depicting Sister Clodagh's memories of Ireland were shot on location in County Galway. The meticulous care behind Alfred Junge's set design for the palace is reflected in details such as the remarkably convincing murals of Indian nudes. Cinematographer Jack Cardiff deliberately modeled the delicate lighting of the convent scenes after Vermeer, Rembrandt, and other painters. Cardiff's work on this film is also noteworthy for his use of low-key lighting during certain sequences and, in general, lower light levels than usual for Technicolor stock, which was notorious for the amount of light it required on the set. Both Alfred Junge and Jack Cardiff deservedly won Academy Awards for their work.
Black Narcissus, however, is not just a work of visual design, and much of its effectiveness depends upon the superb acting in the lead roles. David Farrar later appeared in Powell and Pressburger's The Small Back Room (1949) and a number of smaller films, but none of his roles ever matched the complexity and depth of Mr. Dean. Kathleen Byron is unforgettable as the mad Sister Ruth; she likewise did her best work with Powell and Pressburger--namely this film, The Small Back Room and A Matter of Life and Death (1946). Lead actress Deborah Kerr first worked with Powell and Pressburger in Contraband (1940), in which she played a bit part; she followed this up with her triumphant triple role in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943). For the part of Sister Clodagh, Powell claims in his autobiography that he initially thought of luring Greta Garbo out of seclusion. When Pressburger suggested Kerr, Powell initially expressed reservations that she was too young for the part¿twenty-six at the time of production--but nonetheless agreed to cast her. By this time she was already under contract to MGM, which added considerably to the cost of signing her on. Black Narcissus was thus her last film in England before relocating to Hollywood. While Kerr went to many great roles, including a brilliant and underrated turn as the governess in The Innocents (1961), Sister Clodagh remains among the most confident and subtle performances of her career.
Written, Produced and Directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
Adapted from the novel by Rumer Godden
Photography: Jack Cardiff
Music: Brian Easdale
Editor: Reginald Mills
Costumes: Hein Heckroth
Production design: Alfred Junge
Cast: Deborah Kerr (Sister Clodagh), David Farrar (Mr. Dean), Sabu (Dilip, the Young General), Flora Robson (Sister Phillippa), Esmond Knight (The Old General), Jean Simmons (Kanchi), Kathleen Byron (Sister Ruth), Jenny Laird (Sister Honey), Judith Furse (Sister Briony), May Hallatt (Angu Ayah), Eddie Whaley, Jr. (Joseph Anthony), Shaun Noble (Con), Nancy Roberts (Mother Dorothea).
by James Steffen