Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Black Narcissus (1947)

Black Narcissus is a movie that now seems way ahead of its time considering that it was made in 1947. The story is about five nuns who are sent to a dilapidated Himalayan palace to convert it into a school and hospital. While they are isolated on the mountain in a constant wind, they struggle in keeping to the faithful tasks at hand because they are distracted by their secular thoughts and desires.

Deborah Kerr portrays Sister Clodagh, the Sister Superior who is in charge of the mission project. She constantly clashes with the local General's agent, Mr. Dean. The virile Mr. Dean challenges Sister Clodagh in her faith while providing a strong dose of testosterone around the new convent. He unwittingly attracts the romantic attentions of Sister Ruth, a nun who was problematical at the beginning and who spirals toward madness as the film unfolds. Kathleen Byron portrays Sister Ruth and does a good job with a difficult role. Kerr is appropriately aloof as Sister Clodagh. Kerr always seems to specialize in playing reserved women, and she is very good here. Character actress Flora Robson also is successful as Sister Philippa, the botanical nun who chooses flowers over the necessary vegetables in the garden. The film's acting honors go to David Farrar as Mr. Dean. Farrar nails all his character.s nuances and manages to make Mr. Dean well-rounded and sympathetic, despite being the nuns' antagonist.

A few weak performances mar the film somewhat. Esmond Knight is way too flamboyant as the village's old General. Sabu is more successful as the young General who wants to learn what the nuns can teach him, but his character is both arrogant and naive. May Hallatt plays a half-crazed and shrieking caretaker of the old palace and quickly wears out her onscreen welcome.  None of these actors are as bad as Jean Simmons, who plays a sensual teenager who is taken into the convent. Hers is a painful performance to watch..

Black Narcissus was co-directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. They do an admirable job with the film's pacing and look. Although the film was entirely shot in a studio, gorgeous mattes make the film seem as though it was filmed outdoors. The use of Technicolor is brilliant - I can't think of any other color film made before 1950 that looks this good with the exception of Gone With the Wind. In fact, both the film's cinematography and art direction won Oscars -- and I would imagine deservedly so.

Kudos also go to the adapted screenplay. The psychological deterioration of the nuns and the clear reasons behind it seem more in keeping with a film of the 1970s instead of 1947. The movie is thoughtful and unsentimental, and would be more powerful if all the acting was of high quality. As it is, I'm forced to give it a B+.

I watched Black Narcissus on Netflix Streaming with my aunt on December 31, 2012.

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