Black Narcissus, 19 May 2020–31 March 2021, from £3.50 - Book now
The legendary co-writer-producer-director duo of Powell and Pressburger are responsible for some of the great British films — including The Red Shoes (1948) and The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) — and Black Narcissus’ dark, charged melodrama is amongst their very best. The film stars Deborah Kerr and Kathleen Byron as two of a group of nuns charged with turning a remote and ruined Himalayan palace into a working convent, complete with a school for the local children. Deeply atmospheric, Black Narcissus crackles with repressed sexuality as the nuns’ godly mission is tested by howling winds, difficult terrain and the arrival of David Farrar’s rakish handyman.
Through pure ingenuity, the film was produced in Pinewood Studios and a subtropical garden in Horsham, and its exoticised vision of the Himalayas tells us more about post-war Britain’s idea of India than anything else. Utilising Jack Cardiff’s ravishing three-strip Technicolor cinematography, and art director, Alfred Junge’s towering sets — both men would win Academy Awards for their work on the film — Powell and Pressburger conjure a fantastical setting, that is both beautiful and eerily oppressive.
Speaking later, director Michael Powell would call Black Narcissus “the most erotic film that I have ever made.” The sisters find themselves isolated in the mountains and are left with little to occupy their minds as they attempt to turn an abandoned palace, once reserved for a prince’s indulgence in earthly pleasures, into an outpost for their Christian God. The film recognises their colonial folly, and slowly the nuns fall to ruin as they are driven mad by lust, memories or simply the howling wind and chasmous valley below.
The films iconic image is of Kerr’s Sister Clodagh ringing the convent’s bell with a sheer drop inches from her feet. The effect was achieved with matte painting, but it reflects the precarious mental state of the character. It is this dark melding of landscape and psychology that lingers in the mind, and as the film winds towards its conclusion, Powell and Pressburger build a feverish, hyper-real atmosphere that matches the mounting psychological turmoil of the characters.