on January 3, 2004
The Criterion DVD edition of "Black Narcissus" brings out the most brilliant aspects of the film, a brightness and splendor that makes the drab Order of Mary nuns re-think a few things. The magnificent & exotic locale, high in the Himalayas, as well as clashing cultures trying to meld, make this a most absorbing experience. Okay, the nuns take a castle in the mountains to teach the locals. That's all I'll tell of the plot. The psychological experiences of each nun are vividly portrayed, as well as the intrusion of a local girl and an Indian prince. A very mystic atmosphere pervades, and the nuns start thinking mundane thoughts. Ah! The mystery of the mountains! It's a bit of a downer to find out that you're not seeing the Himalayas in their splendor; rather, all was filmed on a stage in England. The Oscar-winning art direction and cinematography are totally responsible for creating this wonderfully mysterious place. The Criterion version preserves the phenomenal photography, with colors clashing against each other, creating a visual display of the confusion those poor nuns were facing. Indeed, they all changed, in one way or another. Clear and crisp, you can see every facial wrinkle and every minute detail of costumes and jewelry. A fine achievement. Shadows against sunlight, and brilliant color...quite lovely. It's fun to see a post-adolescent Sabu, though here he plays a fancy young guy and looks uncomfortable, considering his greatest fame came wearing a much more comfortable loincloth. The rest of the acting is excellent, without exception. Deborah Kerr, in one of her first big roles, is commanding, as well as Kathleen Byron, Flora Robson, David Farrar, and an amazing performance by a 17-year old Jean Simmons, as a little Indian tart. I was most taken with the performance of May Hallatt as the crazy caretaker of the palace, who really put a lot in perspective. It's impressive that director Powell and writer Pressburger were in such close collaboration that they took equal credit for everything. As the liner notes tell, England was slow to recover after WW II, and watching the English nuns leave the most spiritual surroundings somehow suggest that the English had no business in India. They didn't understand their surroundings. Interesting. (David Lean's wonderful "A Passage to India" had a similar message). There is a cleansing rainstorm as the nuns leave, which suggests that life will go on, as usual, though the look on Farrar's face at the end is less than hopeful. My favorite moment is when May Hallatt finds out a bunch of "ladies" will be coming, expecting the old days of the harems. Imagine her surprise when she gets a bunch of nuns. If you haven't seen this film already, prepare yourself for a truly visual treat. Young filmmakers should see this, to learn about plot/character development, real conflict & resolution. I'm glad to own it.I
on September 7, 2005
One day, while I was washing the dishes, I turned on the TV and started flipping through channels, landing on "Black Narcissus", which was just ending. I had tuned in to the big climax, so I, of course, didn't fully understand what was going on, but after seeing the ending I thought, "I have to see this movie!!!" I was mesmerized by the images, the music, the acting, everything! Luckily, the same channel was rerunning the film later that night, so I was able to tape it and watch it the next day.
"Black Narcissus" is truly a cinematic classic. It won an Academy Award for Best Cinematography, and it is no wonder. The recreation of Mopu Palace on the mountain with its incredible drop are amazing and very realistic, especially for the 1940s. There are so many scenes that I love, but I don't want to give away the plot. The climactic ending is incredible, as is the "lipstick" scene between Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron)and Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr). I also love Sister Clodagh's flashback scenes, especially the one where Sister Clodagh's face is superimposed on the face of the character as a young woman, before she became a nun, telling the man she loves "I want to stay like this the rest of my life". A poignant moment when we realize that she became a nun to escape the shame of a failed love affair.
The movie can be rather strange at times; I found May Hallatt's character to be overdone in certain scenes, but at other times she is brilliant. Kathleen Byron as Sister Ruth is unforgettable, and Deborah Kerr is excellent, as usual. All the actors are quite good in their roles.
I wouldn't say that this movie is for everyone, but if you like good cinema, then give it a try.
on May 21, 2002
I can't think of another film that has the same feeling of exotic atmosphere that's found in this haunting story. The title comes from a flower with an enticing perfume.
A beautiful young Irish nun, Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr) is sent off to an area in the Himalayan Mountains to establish a new convent. She's an extremely intelligent and competent woman, but the surroundings of the convent add an element of uneasiness and longing to the lives of the nuns. The building had been a harem at one point and the place is completely unsuitable for a convent. Sister Clodagh starts to dwell on her past life as do some of the other nuns which makes for an unsettled feeling within the convent. Kanchi, (Jean Simmons) is a young native woman who adds sensuality and mystery to the film when she flirts with the Young General played by Sabu. The difficult local agent, Mr. Dean provides a masculine influence that effects the sinister Sister Ruth, who is already very disturbed. All of the performances are great!
Rumer Godden, is the very talented author of this story. She's written many memorable books which have been made into films. Another of her classic stories is IN THIS HOUSE OF BREDE. The movie version features Diana Rigg in the part of a woman who becomes a cloistered nun.
BLACK NARCISSUS is beautifully filmed and worth seeing..
on December 3, 2001
It is rare that a cinematographer gets credited with the success of a film before the producer director or even actor, but this has been the case recently with Black Narcissus. This is high praise indeed when you consider the directors and producers were Powell and Pressburger. Although his screen credit was prominent enough at the time the picture was made, since Jack Cardiff won Best Cinematographer (Color) Academy Award in 1947, his profile was raised further.
Cardiff's Special Academy Award last year recognises his contributions to this film, The Red Shoes, A Matter Of Life And Death and Rambo among others. The fact that Technicolor was still a developing technique makes Cardiff's achievements even more remarkable. The subtle contrasts he achieves particularly in the shooting of landscape scenery and locations are usually only achieved with monochrome photography. The splendid costumes on the other hand, provide rich reds, yellows and greens to contrast with the pale blues and greys of the background, making all the actors not playing nuns stand out, particularly Ruth when she wears her new red dress. Look at how the colouring of the dress changes according to her mood, achieved with skilful use of lighting and shadows. Sometimes it appears purple, others black, and sometimes bright scarlet. Earlier, Ruth is heard to remark that all the Indians look the same to her, which is ironic when the nuns' habits make them look alike, but the rich costume of the leading Indians mark each out as an individual. This reflects the mature attitude to race displayed in this film. There is little or no blacking up (apart from Jean Simmons), the beliefs and customs of the Indians are treated with respect by the film-makers, if not by all of the nuns.
There is some clever colonial observation in the British man who has gone native (played with square-jawed ruggedness by David Farrar) and the Indian Prince who wants to become a Christian (a grown-up Sabu). The achievement of Cardiff is all the more remarkable when you consider that the directors and producers he overshadowed were none other than Powell And Pressburger. The subject matter has dated since the film was made. India achieved independence the following year and a lot of what goes on in this film is now history. Having said that, the interpersonal relationships are still as fresh as they were in 1946 and Deborah Kerr's troubled nun still as relevant a character today as she was then. This film is worth watching just for the visuals, but it is also an enjoyable story to watch, unpredictable and with a rougher edge than might be expected at the beginning.
on February 25, 2001
With BLACK NARCISSUS, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger achieved what may be their masterpiece: it's every bit as visually stunning as their more beloved films THE RED SHOES and A MATTER OF LIFE AN DEATH, but with Rumer Godden's novel providing the story they have a much more sophisticated and challenging story to work with. Godden's novel of lust and memory bursting forth in the peculiar Himalayan atmosphere of a former harem, transformed into a new convent, is unlike almost anything ever written, and provides the cast with absolutely extraordinary roles to work with. With the exception of the Governess in THE INNOCENTS, Deborah Kerr never got another role up to the level of her singular talent as that of Sister Clodagh, the ambivalent sister superior in the convent of St. Faith's: her fierce determination and unearthly beauty is well-served by the billowing wimple that frames her face so severely. There are some very strange performances of Indian characters that almost sink the film, including May Hallett as a very unconvincing ayah (she bears an uncanny resemblance to Agnes Moorehead, and is just about as authentically Indian). However, the British roles are superbly acted, with a suitably Michael Farrar as a scornful local contact for the nuns, and Kathleen Byron as the most disturbed member of the convent. The final wordless sequence of the film is an absolute classic: a brilliantly suspenseful sequence that takes the odd rarefied air of hysteria permeating the film to its highest pitch.
on September 23, 2000
British cinema during the post-WWII years produced a string of terrific movies, and Black Narcissus is among the most remarkable of those films. There is an eerie, sexually charged atmosphere throughout this story of five nuns sent into a remote part of the Himalayas to establish a convent and work with the locals. There's something about the air that clears their heads and allows all sorts of worldly thoughts to permeate their consciousness. The results are tragic. Deborah Kerr stars as the Sister Superior and gives yet another excellent portrait of repression and duty mixed uneasily together. As good as she might be, it's Kathleen Byron as the disturbed Sister Ruth whose performance dominates the film. Her descent into madness is chilling and Byron is nothing short of amazing in the way she physically and emotionally plays it. The cinematography is justly famous, and the direction is superb, capturing and exploiting the repressed atmosphere and increasing mental unease of the experience using great camera angles. The score also deserves mention. The sound of the howling wind runs throughout the film, and choirs of voices are used with rising intensity to create dramatic tension. Black Narcissus is unlike any movie you have seen.
on May 31, 2000
MOVIE SYNOPSIS: You may never see a more beautiful motion picture as this grandly photographed production, in special Technicolor, of the J. Arthure Rank film, "BLACK NARCISSUS" ~ ~ at least as far as scenery is concerned. E very scene fills the eye with loveliness; the acting is tops! The story is interesting enough; it will show a group of nuns who journey to the Himalayan wilderness high, high above sea level with cold, moody winds all around. . .howling, howling, howling. . .day in day out! Trying to establish a health and educational center is a lot to hope for, but these few valiant women endure many ups and downs in their short stay on this windy, windy, lonely spot. MOVIE REVIEW: What I think of this grand adventure is very rewarding to me and I hope to share a little of this with you the readers. . .Under the supervision of Sister Cloagh, these handfull of nuns try to cope with nature, plumbing, natives, and hard-drinking ~ ~ local British agent ~ ~ Mr. Dean. Each nun has her own problem. There is a superbly played Sister Ruth by Kathleen Byron with a very emotional siduation which will not meet with the approval of the others. Sister Clodagh must deal with all these problems ~ ~ and well she will. The films story and those of the nuns are handled delicately, carefully avoiding sensationalism and the making of "heavy weather". A MUST-NOT-MISS FILM ! The performances are not to be questioned for they are A L L ever lasting and memorable ! Deborah Kerr - back then when it was filmed (perhaps in 1946 or 1947) was truly a shining star ! Retired and resting and doing as well as can be expected. We will always remember this grande dame. . .I know that I speak for myself and her loyal fans and her industry. . . !
on April 27, 2000
When we think of British films of the 1940s we usually think of either terribly stiff-upper-lipped gents on warships being stoical (while Richard Attenborough panics in the boiler room) or disappointingly unfunny comedies starring Alec Guinness. Powell and Pressburger were different, though.
For a start, they favoured lurid technicolor over sober black and white, plus nearly all their films have an alarming cosmopolitanism. Their attitude to Britain and British life is a mixture of affection and sharp satire, and emotions tend not to be repressed, they bubble over with startling violence. Powell, who was English in a fairly weird way, did most of the directing, Pressburger, who was Hungarian, most of the writing, and they were co-producers. The result is an exhilarating blend of almost Elizabethan exuberance and East European intelligence.
Black Narcissus is about a bunch of English nuns trying to bring Christianity to India. Gradually they start to go native; the heat, the heathenism and the sexy local administrator conspire to send the steam up their wimples. The whole ensemble cast is wondeful, and Deborah Kerr is on fine form as the mother superior, but the really startling performance is Kathleen Byron's. Byron is amazing as the sickly, irritable nun who goes totally loo-lah from sexual repression and ends up chucking in her habit for a low-cut dress. Her beautifully observed shift from tight-lipped anger to sweaty lust to hollow-eyed psychosis is easily one of the most brilliant performances in any film made before, oh, 1970 or so. It's a tragedy that Byron (one of the best, not to mention one of the most beautiful actresses of her generation) never got work as good as this again.
A weird, sexy, alarming film. Scorsese is a huge Powell fan; there's a little bit of Kathleen Byron in Travis Bickle. Wonderful stuff.
on April 18, 2001
"Black Narcissus" as a movie rates five stars, but I must remove two stars from this version because Criterion has given us a cut version without telling us. I have seen the full version of "Black Narcissus," and Criterion's omission is inexcusable. Powell and Pressburger are trying to portray the erotic from four perspectives: the ascetic, the repressed, the carnal and the sensual. Anyone who knows Powell and Pressburger knows the importance of sensuality in their films. Thanks to Criterion, the expressed sensuality of "Black Narcissus" - the courtship of Kanchi (18 year-old Jean Simmons) and the Young General (Sabu), including a notorious dance scene - is not available to us, and a significant element of the story is missing. The missing footage itself rates pulling a star; that this is a Criterion edition rates pulling another. We should expect better from Criterion.
on May 4, 2001
I have nothing but a subjective comment to add to the many fine objective reviews presented here. This is a spellbinding movie that has haunted me for years. No other film in my fifty-odd years of viewing has so affected me. There is, beyond the obvious tangibles of superb artistry, an intangible quality that continues to elude me. Maybe it's that last scene of departure - the man framed against the mountain, the raindrops evanescing from the leaves, the procession passing finally into the mist. I know something has passed, yet something remains. But what? I know now that the movie is to be experienced, not decoded, a case where the figurative whole becomes a sum greater than any of its truly astonishing parts. Someone once observed that strange things happen when the practical mind of the English encounters traditional mysticism of the East. Strange and sometimes wonderful things, it should be added.