A group of nuns, led by Sister Clodagh (Gemma Arterton), trek across the Himalayas to establish a new mission. Yet as the convent begins to take shape, Clodagh and the sisters come under the spell of both a haunted palace and rakish agent Mr Dean (Alessandro Nivola).
It’s a brave soul that takes on Black Narcissus. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s 1947 adaptation of Rumer Godden’s nuns-go-crazy-in-the-Himalayas novel is a landmark in British cinema, leaning into saturated colours, stunning painted backdrops, dramatic music stings and a pitch-perfect cast to create a masterpiece of loneliness and lust, frenzy and frustration. This new BBC/FX Productions take, written by Amanda Coe (Apple Tree Yard) and directed by Charlotte Bruus Christensen (cinematographer on Molly’s Game and A Quiet Place), tries to channel the masterpiece while including more of the original source material. The result is a valiant, respectful effort, but it never goes far enough to assert its own personality.
The bare-bones story remains. Sister Clodagh (Gemma Arterton) is charged with setting up a new convent in the outer reaches of the Himalayas, a task set in the shadow of a Bad Thing, that happened with previous attempts to create a mission (laid out in a prologue). Clodagh is tasked with a crack unit of nuns — gardener Sister Philippa (Karen Bryson), upbeat Sister Briony (Rose Cavaliero) and unstable Sister Ruth (Aisling Franciosi) — and sent to the dangerous mountainside convent, set up in a former house of ill-repute for the local general (Kulvinder Ghir). Slowly each nun begins to question their faith and sanity, a general hysteria compounded by Mr Dean (Alessandro Nivola), the general’s agent/odd job man who begins to stir the loins of the sisterhood.
Where this Black Narcissus scores best is in its lead. Gemma Arterton gives Clodagh a sense of both superiority and compassion towards her sisters and she is ably supported by the likes of Gina McKee, Jim Broadbent and, in her last role, Diana Rigg, as a kind of church version of M giving Clodagh the mission. As you’d expect, the film does a better job with appropriate casting for key Asian characters such as Dilip Rai (Chaneil Kular), who begins an affair with entrancing-but-disgraced student Kanchi (Dipika Kunwar, in the role earlier played by a brownfaced Jean Simmons). Coe’s adaptation also gets to flesh out Sister Clodagh’s backstory by drip-feeding some saucy flashbacks (that Powell and Pressburger could never do) to her past that play into her present.
But what the whole amounts to is a sense of building tension and passion that never really erupts. There are also hints early on that the supernatural is in play — the BBC sound design department’s ‘Eerie Howling Wind’ effect is working overtime here — but again, the suggestion is never fully realised or explored. But what Black Narcissus can’t do is get anywhere near the electricity and chemistry in the triangle between Clodagh, Ruth and Mr Dean. Arterton’s Clodagh and Nivola’s Dean should be on Crimestoppers’ list for the number of glances they steal, but it never amounts to much. And Aisling Franciosi, who has the unenviable job of following in the footsteps of Kathleen Byron’s unforgettable 1947 incarnation, adds more vulnerable notes but can’t manifest the mania or unhinged quality required.
With Christensen acting as her own DP, Black Narcissus is a visually impressive work, subtle and restrained, but when it comes to its big moments cleaves far too closely to Powell and Pressburger’s vision, the famous bell-tower sequences feeling like a shot-for-shot remake. It’s a handsomely mounted, well-played production, but you can get more juice and thrills from the 1947 flick at nearly half the running time.
Gemma Arterton leads a strong ensemble but Black Narcissus feels small compared to its big-screen predecessor, never crafting a heady atmosphere all of its own.