Black Narcissus successfully rethinks a classic novel and film

Gemma Arterton stars as one of a group of missionary nuns subject to various tests of faith in a Himalayan outpost in this striking BBC mini-series.

25 December 2020

By Hannah McGill

Sight and Sound

Black Narcissus is on BBC One and iPlayer from 27 December 2020.

Published in 1939, Black Narcissus was the third novel and first bestseller by Rumer Godden. Godden was the daughter of an English shipping executive stationed in pre-Partition India, and lived there as both child and adult; she wrote often of the temperamental, aesthetic and spiritual clashes engendered by British colonialism. Black Narcissus, written while Godden was running a dance school for children in Kolkata, is her best-known exploration of the theme – though it has been somewhat eclipsed in terms of esteem by the 1947 film adaptation directed by Michael Powell and scripted by Emeric Pressburger.

Powell tells in his autobiography of having been approached twice with the Godden novel: once by the actress Mary Morris, who wanted to play the wayward young Sister Ruth, and then by Pressburger, whose wife Wendy Orme had recommended it as a perfect project. (“Emeric had read it and entirely agreed,” writes Powell, “and after all it is so rare that one entirely agrees with one’s wife, particularly if one is Emeric.”) Powell cast the admired but underused Hollywood star Deborah Kerr in the leading role of Sister Clodagh; filmed at Pinewood Studios, with Jack Cardiff behind the camera and the Himalayan setting suggested by the sub-tropical gardens of Leonardslee House in Sussex and matte paintings by W. Percy Day; and created one of the indelible masterpieces of British cinema.

A family connection links this new three-part mini-series to the older film: its producer Andrew Macdonald is the grandson of Emeric Pressburger. The emergence of a new version of this story at this point in history is otherwise rather confounding. Not only is the stature of the Powell/Pressburger version such that any new adaptation is doomed to unflattering comparison, but the primary themes of Black Narcissus – ego versus duty; desire versus responsibility; what God wants of us compared with what we want for ourselves – seem not so much merely archaic as barely comprehensible to a generation for which it is the expression and fulfilment of individual desires, not their suppression, that stands as sacrosanct. Only the theme of the doomed colonial escapade seems directly pertinent to the current cultural moment – but here, too, Godden is distinctly problematic, being both unavoidably condescending towards ‘natives’, and elegiac and ironic rather than morally decisive about imperialism.

Nila Aalia as Angu Ayah, Alessandro Nivola as Mr Dean, Rosie Cavaliero as Sister Briony, Aisling Franciosi as Sister Ruth and Patsy Ferran as Sister Blanche in Black Narcissus

Black Narcissus deposits a small group of Anglican missionary nuns in a gorgeous, windswept outpost of the Himalayas named Mopu, there to set up a mountainside convent school. Their mother superior (played here by the late Diana Rigg, in one of her final screen roles) sees this as an opportunity to test the mettle of headstrong, ambitious Sister Clodagh (Gemma Arterton), and deliberately adds to Clodagh’s burden by sending with her the volatile Sister Ruth (Aisling Franciosi).

Scripted by Amanda Coe and directed by Charlotte Bruus Christensen, this version did shoot on location in Nepal, though it doesn’t show it that much, seeming to have inherited from its cinematic forebear some reticence about showing the landscape that so intoxicates the characters. As Clodagh, Arterton is an earthier, warmer presence than Kerr, and less obviously out of place in the unbuttoned lushness of Mopu; but she conveys to sympathetic effect both the multiple tests to which Clodagh is put, and her initial resourcefulness in meeting them.

Key to mastering Mopu is a functional relationship with the local community and, crucially, the General’s go-between and odd-job man, Mr Dean (Alessandro Nivola). And yet Clodagh’s success in befriending Dean – indeed, every success she manages – soon flips against her. Being a highly capable project manager is not the same as being a good nun, and Clodagh’s successes in serving the practical needs of the mission seem dependent upon compromises to its values – whether that means allowing free rein to the free-spirited, challenging Dean around the convent, or agreeing to teach the General’s flamboyant princeling Dilip (Chaneil Kular).

Chaneil Kular as Dilip Rai in Black Narcissus

Pride in her own achievements, meanwhile, is a sin, giving her whole undertaking a taint of paradox. Indeed, any contentment on the part of the sisters proves, in religious terms, to be a dangerous illusion – it indicates that they are growing too open to the lush, sensual atmosphere of their new base. One of Godden’s most resonant sequences, beautifully played here by Karen Bryson, sees Sister Philippa take responsibility for the convent garden, fall madly in love with the local flora, and beg Sister Clodagh for extra funds to buy bulbs and seeds; and then request a transfer away from Mopu in the realisation that she has become too seduced by the glamour of the place. “All I can think about,” she tells Clodagh, “is the beauty of everything.” The nuns are not supposed to love flowers, gift from God though they may be. “We are to keep the gaze inward,” Sister Clodagh says – even as her own gaze strays regularly to the beautiful young Dilip and the knowing Mr Dean.

The one nun who seems to spontaneously understand the dangers of mixing asceticism and exoticism is Ruth, whom Franciosi plays more as an obnoxious teenager than a frustrated vamp. Sensitive and uninhibited, Ruth destabilises the project by speaking the truth: airing the excitement and disgust she feels around the locals and their children; drawing attention to both her own desire for Mr Dean and to Clodagh’s special relationship with him. All the while, the nuns’ uncertainty and neediness is mocked by the presence of a mysterious holy man, who lives out his own vocation simply by gazing at the landscape, and who is never seen to eat or sleep.

Gemma Arterton as Sister Clodagh with the holy man in Black Narcussus

Perhaps because psychological wrangling over the nature of religious duty is a less than hot-button subject – and perhaps because the depiction of Ruth’s rebellion against Clodagh in Powell’s film has become so iconic as to attach far sultrier expectations to the story than are satisfied by the text – Coe’s adaptation foregrounds the sexual element in Clodagh’s story, over her struggle with her pride, the “narcissus” of the title. Flashbacks to Clodagh’s younger days in Ireland show us not a woman socially humiliated by her boyfriend’s failure to propose when she expected him to, but one who is specifically rejected after giving herself sexually.

This adjustment in emphasis is small, but impactful. It lessens the symbolic force of Ruth’s sexual acting-out, and gives us a different Clodagh – an experienced one, and one whose interaction with Mr Dean is very much more charged. In Godden’s story, Dean is a kindred spirit to Clodagh, whose challenge to her vocation is primarily intellectual rather than erotic. Here, he is explicitly positioned as a suitor; and Clodagh’s choice concerns romance weighed against religion, rather than a pained existential wrangle with her own faith.

Aisling Franciosi as Sister Ruth in Black Narcissus

Also tweaked in the service of genre (albeit a different one) is the implication within the story of malevolent presences or powers contained in the house itself. The building’s history as lodgings for the General’s concubines has left not only suggestive murals on the walls, but a miasma of licentiousness. A historical suicide adds tragedy to the mix. The idea of Mopu as literally haunted is teased forward here, with Sister Ruth in particular subjected to the metallic shrieks and creaks that are the defining cliché of modern horror.

But if its concessions to current appetites for sex and spookiness reduce its subtlety overall, this more spacious adaptation allows for more exploration of the ingredients that made up Godden’s heady brew. Perhaps Godden herself would even prefer it to Powell’s version, which she considered “an absolute travesty of the book”.

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