Black Narcissus (1947)
Madness up in Mopa
Now the old place is a pukka convent - Mr. Dean
Prior to watching "Black Narcissus" I knew what the story was about, a small group of Nuns setting up a convent high up in the Himalayas and finding it a battle be it the howling winds, the language barriers or their own demons. And to be honest the story didn't exactly lead me to want to watch, what did was the simple fact that "Black Narcissus" is one of those movies which is held in high esteem and even those who watched it for the first time now extol its virtues. Now having watched it I am one of those many who are blown a way by a triumphant movie, one which to be frank didn't really surprise me when it came to the storyline but it's construction, the locations, cinematography and acting had me spellbound.
Sent to Mopa high up in the Himalayas Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr - An Affair to Remember) is in charge of a small group of nuns who are to establish a new convent 8,000 ft up in a place which belonged to the local General. Whilst difficult they convert the Palace into a school and hospital with the help of the General's agent Mr. Dean (David Farrar) who also warns them about doing anything to upset the locals. But the atmosphere up the mountain has a strange effect on all of them especially Sister Clodagh who finds Mr. Dean's presence not only a temptation but a reminder of the life she left behind. And it is also Mr. Dean's presence which brings out an obsession which leads to tragedy high up in the Himalayas.
Whilst I am sure that for some the actual concept of "Black Narcissus" with these nuns battling against personal demons, locals and nature will be brilliant it was to be honest exactly what I expected. So having watched these 5 nuns lead by Sister Superior Clodagh make it to the old Palace 8,000 ft up in the Himalayas I wasn't surprised that they found the atmosphere strange, the wind and local traditions hard work as well as the issues with language barriers. And to be honest the simmering feelings which form between Clodagh and the local agent Mr. Dean didn't surprise me either. As such as the story unfolds it is quite easy to predict how it is going to end, directors Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger make it extremely obvious what will happen, although to be honest you are in a strange way looking forward to a certain act.
But whilst "Black Narcissus" delivers pretty much everything I expected it is still fascinating when it comes to these Nuns battling their demons and trying to stay true to their beliefs. From Sister Clodagh having to deal with the Young General wanting to be taught in the all female convent through to her dislike of the local holy man who sits up on their land, not speaking but observing.
But it is the inner turmoil which really grab you especially Sister Clodagh who finds herself remembering her life before she devoted it to being a Nun, brought on partly by the surroundings but also the inner feelings she has for Mr. Dean. This in turn brings another conflict as the sickly Sister Ruth also grows fond of Mr. Dean and with her battling fever and hallucinations it causes tempers to rise. Add to that the other Nuns who find themselves disobeying orders whilst falling in love with the place and there is a lot of depth going on. And what in many ways makes "Black Narcissus" special is that every time you watch it more of this depth opens itself up as you pick up on elements missed on the previous viewing.
But the fascinating drama of these nuns is just one part of the reason why "Black Narcissus" is held in such high regard and another part is that it is simply visually stunning. Just the actual location of the convent high up on the side of the mountain is stunning and that is before we are even taken inside and given the unbelievable look at the bell tower with its sheer drop down the mountain side. But the location is only half of it as cinematography Jack Cardiff extends the exquisite nature of the movie to the shots of the actresses and actors, using clever blends of shadows to build atmosphere. And then there are the transitional shots especially as we watch Sister Clodagh flashback to her past which eerily merge with the present. To put it simply there are very few movies which are as visually beautiful as "Black Narcissus" and just watching it for the visual experience is well worth it.
The final element which lifts "Black Narcissus" into that category of being a classic is the acting be it the restraint which David Farrar shows as Mr. Dean as he battles his feelings towards Sister Clodagh through to Kathleen Bryon's borderline psychotic portrayal of Sister Ruth as her illness takes grip of her. Add to that Sabu who has all the pomp ness of the young General and a silent portrayal from a young Jean Simmons as temptress Kanchi and you already have a stunning series of performances.
But then there is Deborah Kerr as Sister Clodagh who is at the centre of it all, battling her feelings towards Mr. Dean, her emotions brought on by the flashbacks as well as the stresses of trying to keep the convent and the nuns in check. With Kerr spending the majority of the movie in a Nun's habit with just her face showing it is an example of how acting should be done, delivering lines and expressions with total belief and understanding of the character. To put it simply Kerr is so natural, so believable be it as a woman of the cloth or as one who is fighting her feelings and it is as spellbinding as the rest of the movie.
What this all boils down to is that "Black Narcissus" is a truly brilliant movie even if the storyline was for me a little obvious. From the cinematography through to the acting it is just brilliant and even when you can guess how things will play out you are still drawn into the strange atmosphere of the convent up in the mountain.
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