Classic Film Talk: ‘Black Narcissus’ (1947)

Today we reminisce about

Black Narcissus (1947)

Directed by Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger

Starring: Deborah Kerr, Sabu, David Farrar, Kathleen Byron, Jean Simmons

* Published for the Deborah Kerr Blogathon hosted by Maddy Loves Her Classic Films. *

Although I have become aware of several well-known Powell & Pressburger works, I am still largely unacquainted with their style. Thus, writing about Black Narcissus has not come easy to me and I have found it equally difficult to process the film. My first impression was quite strongly negative as I failed to understand both the story and the characters within. Watching it for a second time did help in providing me more insight but ultimately it failed to change my overall opinion, though it had more to do with the narrative than with the performances. After some reflection, I gathered that my aversion is a mainly a result of personal preference, though I gained more affection for the film after conducting some research. I will explain both aspects further in the context of the film.

Sister Clodagh, Sister Ruth & Mr. Dean

The story follows several nuns from the Convent of the Order of the Servants of Mary, located in Calcutta, who are sent to a new post where they are to inaugurate a school and hospital for local inhabitants. They have been gifted an old building and some land from the General of Mopu, a town that is approximately 8,500 feet up in the middle of the Himalayas. The building is not in great shape and has been predominantly uninhabited for several decades with the exception of housing a single caretaker by the name of Ayah. Sister Clodagh (Kerr), a young and inexperienced nun is named a Sister Superior and is to oversee the establishment, freshly coined “St. Faith”. It is unclear why the General is being so generous though it is revealed that this is not the first time that he has attempted to rehabilitate the palace, thus far unsuccessfully. An adviser to the General, a certain Mr. Dean (Farrar), tries to dissuade them from coming though to no avail. When they arrive, he dryly predicts that it will be a short time before they give up and leave.

Things start off well as people flock to St. Faith; the classrooms filled with children and the infirmary in great demand. The sisters are slightly demoralised when they find out that the General is paying people to come although this ends when he dies unexpectedly. His successor, Prince Salaam (Sabu) is very optimistic about them being there and even asks to be educated. Also amongst them is a young Indian girl, Kanchi (Simmons), who has been exiled from her community. She had previously tried to seduce Mr. Dean and now has her eyes set on the Prince. It does not take long for everyone to start acting a bit unlike their usual selves though it is worse for some than others. One of those people is Sister Ruth (Byron) who slowly gravitates towards insanity.

What is this strange atmosphere at Mopu and what ultimate toll will it take on the Sisters?

Black Narcissus received overall favourable reviews upon its release. These opinions are still maintained today and the film is highly appreciated amongst cinephiles and historians, currently placing in the 44th position on the British Film Institute’s list of the Top 100 British films. Most of the acclaim was given to the cinematography which was richly enhanced by dazzling Technicolor, making the film one the first full-length talking features made by a British studio. (It is important to note that during the Second World War, Technicolor was very hard to come by in the United Kingdom due to its cost. This goes without mentioning the difficultly in filming due to blackout obligations.) Additionally, the taboo themes of the film were labelled as being bold and groundbreaking especially in regard to entering the minds – and fantasies – of women of the Church.

Margaret Rumer Godden

The film is faithfully based on the 1939 novel of the same name authored by Margaret Rumer Godden, an English-born woman who spent a great portion of her youth living in an Indian city that is now part of Bangladesh. She completed her schooling in England and eventually decided to move back to India after finishing her studies, opening a dance school in Calcutta. The novel was written during this time, a pivotal point in her life when she had become a mother and was living in an unhappy marriage. Considering the personal challenges Godden was facing as well as her own private inclinations, it is likely that the novel was highly influenced by her own emotions. Digging a little deeper into Godden’s life, I discovered that she had a profound love for India and considered England to be a relatively foreign place, creating restless disturbances whenever she had to go back for her education. After she separated from her husband and had very little financial means, she ended up living as a poor native near Dal Lake in northern India. (It is likely that she had to spend any and all of her savings just to complete the trip which was over 2300 km. one way from Calcutta). Godden’s understanding and appreciation of India was obvious well before her eventual migration and settlement into a purer Indian way of life.
A beautiful poster from illustrator Tony Stella

How the nuns adjust to their new surrounds is focused upon in Black Narcissus and shows some of them having problems dealing with Indian protocol especially that which is informal. For instance, Sister Honey cannot accept the diagnosis given by Sister Briony concerning an infant who has been brought to the infirmary. Sister Briony, who has a great deal of experience in the field of nursing, realises that curing the baby is beyond her means and tells the mother to go back to her people. Though she does not verbalise it, she knows the baby will die and the only peace she can offer the mother is for to get love and support from amongst her people. Sister Honey is much younger and finds Sister’s Briony’s attitude shocking, akin to abandonment. Against the consent of both Sister Clodagh and Sister Briony, Sister Honey secretly gives an ointment to the mother which is later used against them when the baby passes away. While these two women wished that the baby would be saved, only Sister Briony respected the eventual outcome of the situation and the cultural way that the death would be handled amongst the natives. In the end, Sister Honey’s good intentions are misinterpreted by the natives who find her act to have contributed to the baby’s death. She was too naïve in her British, modern world way of thinking simultaneously showing her human side in wanting to actively do something to prevent the baby’s death rather than to leave it God’s hands.

Acting as their leader, Sister Clodagh attempts to help the other Sisters in their times of need and struggle all the while enforcing her position. She is the strongest personality amongst them and is certainly the most outwardly strict. There is barely a moment in the film when a slight smile falls over her face for she generally appears very stern and without the slightest sense of humour. Privately, however, Sister Clodagh is afflicted by personal remorse she holds towards a failed romance and the comfortable life she led as a member of a wealthy Irish family. Her flashbacks are more in the tone of being fantasies from which she takes great pleasure. Despite her obviously enjoying the thought of entertaining the flesh, she does not cede to Mr. Dean when he shows an unpronounced admiration for her. She manages to remain faithful to her former love interest and to the Godly path she has chosen.

Deborah Kerr as Sister Clodagh

Deborah Kerr plays Sister Clodagh flawlessly, no doubt, but I had a very hard time coming to like the character due to her cold nature with others. At the same time, I cannot help but to have admiration for a woman who is so dedicated to her cause and never questions continuing on with the task at hand. Perhaps this was a result of her ability to so efficiently contain inner desires. She chose to continue living with the ghosts of her past rather than to seek to change her current circumstances. Essentially, she was not called to become a nun from an ethereal force but rather did so to run away from her heartache. Kerr does a good job of remaining a stand-out presence in the cast, even when her image is captured in the distance of a shot. The moments in which she chooses to reveal her softer side are exact and well-chosen though they do not last very long.

Sister Clodagh was not alone in sometimes existing in a parallel universe. The groundskeeper, Ayah, heard the voice of spirits and even happily responded to them. When we first meet the (first) General, his introduction is slightly obscure as you get the impression that he himself is a ghost. It could be that Powell & Pressburger wished to give this impression to match the mysterious and somewhat unsettling ambiance of the film. Sister Philippa loses her faith and is stricken with strange behaviour, although nothing reaches the level of Sister Ruth, the one villainess of the story. She was not well before leaving for Mopu and becomes very much of a loose cannon from there.

It seems to me the idea of this story and the labelling of this film as a Technicolor Erotic Drama is a bit old-fashioned for modern day audiences. The notion of erotica is based purely on suggestion in addition to the unmasking of nuns as imperfect followers of God, things that would have been considered quite shocking subjects back in the day. Nowadays, this term has taken on a completely different meaning, usually being one of vulgarity and excessiveness. The pace of the film is nice and slow but I never felt as if there was one pivotal moment in it until the climax near the end. Had I seen this on the big screen and been able to marvel at the Technicolor, it could be that my opinion would have differed some.

There have been a few films that I have not liked even after giving them numerous tries so I shall not take my disappointment at face value. I am encouraged that Hitchcock was influenced by this film, taking elements of the script and the cinematography for at least two of his films, Sabotage and Vertigo. Since I happen to cherish Vertigo, that emotion is enough for me to want to give this film its due.

Shades of ‘Sabotage’. Sister Ruth’s downward spiral.

Happy Birthday, Deborah Kerr! 30 September 1921

13 thoughts on “Classic Film Talk: ‘Black Narcissus’ (1947)

  1. Thanks for this honest review. I love this film. I can certainly understand why some people have difficulty getting into it though. I view it as an experience that you need to give yourself over to(sort of like Kubrick’s films).

    The film is stunning to look at. The Technicolor use, and the photography found in Powell and Pressburger films is unlike anything else on film.

    I love the relationship between Mr. Dean and Sister Clodagh. The breakdown of Sister Ruth makes for disturbing viewing, and the scenes of her face looking scary are truly the stuff of nightmares!

    I agree with your assessment of Sister Clodagh. I see her as a sort of living embodiment of the perfection seemingly attained by those who give themselves over to religious life. I think that is why she seems remote to most people. She has moved so far away from acting on her desires and needs, and therefore she is apart from the rest of humanity. That is why she struggles so much when she too starts experiencing flashbacks, strains and worry, because she has far more barriers waiting to be broken down by the influence of the open and less restrictive society around her.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I appreciate your kind words, Maddy! 😊
      It’s absolutely an experience seeing a film like this and I had difficulty in writing it because I felt like I “had” to enjoy it due to its critical acclaim. If I re-visit this film in time, I’m sure to see my opinion evolved from its current position. ☺

      Sister Ruth was in dire need of help and it was shocking to see her steep decline. I did feel quite bad for her being rejected so heartlessly by Mr. Dean, who I think could have been gentler in declining her affections. It was not Sister Clodagh’s fault as anything felt towards her by Mr. Dean was not reciprocated.

      It is definitely time to tuck into my P&P set and see more of their films. I imagine the Blu-ray versions must be gorgeous.


      1. Never feel like you have to like or dislike a film just because the majority of people do. Agreed completely about Sister Ruth.

        If you are tucking in to more Powell and Pressburger I recommend the following: The Red Shoes, A Matter Of Life And Death, The Small Back Room, Life And Death Of Colonel Blimp, I Know Where I’m Going and The Spy In Black. Not all their films are in colour, but the ones that are look spectacular!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Some of those P&P films are not in my boxset but I’ll seek them out. 😊 I love B&W as much as Technicolor so the films are sure to be great. I’ve heard so much about them. TA for the info!


  2. I really like how you gave this film a fair go despite your own reservations, Erica. And you reflected really well on how this film seems to be driven by character rather than a lot of plot action. Really enjoyed reading this!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much, Gabriela! 😀
      I started thinking about Hitchcock’s influence but mostly it was the details about the author’s life that moved me to try and understand her intentions. Some people later interpreted aspects of the film as pro-Indian in the face of a decreasing British rule but that was only with the film version, which was released as WWII was ending.
      These are films that make you think, that’s for sure. ☺

      Liked by 1 person

    1. I definitely think you are correct because it is a film that really rattles you especially when it doesn’t *click* right away. It’s frustrating on the surface but ultimately these kinds of films are rewarding.


  3. What a marvelous review! I agree with you that “erotica” nowadays has a completely different meaning, and other films about nuns struggling with their faith and their surroundings have been done and labeled simply as dramas. Why can’t Black Narcissus be also a drama?
    I never knew it was based in a book. THe author certainly had a curious life story. Thanks for brining attention to her.
    Don’t forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hello, Le! Thanks so much for stopping by and sharing your thoughts! 🙂
      I honestly have no idea how this film ended up being labelled as erotica because it is not that at all, even subtly so. Perhaps because it was so visually stimulating and talking about such a taboo subject as nuns’ sexuality, the combination seem to blow some people’s minds. Perhaps they were trying to soften the blow of a post-War audience. It’s slightly baffling to say the least. I know that I should give this film another try, especially after I’ve watched more P&P films. The author was definitely an interesting lady who really lived apart from everyone else.

      I’ll be happy to visit your blog entry as well! I’m having some difficulties in writing responses outside of WP but I’m going to try! 😀


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s