What would you say to a movie about a small group of nuns who start a convent in the Himalayas. "No thanks, I'll pass." Alright, well what would you say if the convent was in a former royal brothel, the nuns both sexually and emotionally repressed and they're constantly in the company of a handsome, half-naked, amoral Englishman. Perks things up a bit. Add to these elements, breathtaking scenery, shot in the most vivid Technicolor, a magnificent score, a lusty young native wench on the make for a flamboyant but good hearted Indian aristocrat and you've got Black Narcissus (1947).
Developed by British film craftsmen, the director/writer team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, Black Narcissus is a masterpiece of both style and substance. Based on the 1939 novel by Rumer Godden, it tells the story of a small group of Anglican nuns who go to a remote Himalayan village to establish a school and hospital for the simple peasant citizenry. There journey is an unconventional one from the get-go, as they set up shop in what was once a "house of women" or a harem residence for the concubines of a former royal general. It is called the Palace of Mopu and it is both exotic and mystical, very Shangri-La-esque. Leading the pack is the Sister Superior, Clodagh (Deborah Kerr), a young but rigid and self important character who finds her new domain unmanageable and laden with temptations of all variety. In her charge are Sister Briony (Judith Furse), a stout and no-nonsense prioress; Sister Phillipa (Flora Robson), who is devout but troubled and anxious; Sister Honey (Jenny Laird), popular and tender hearted; and Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron), the black sheep of the cloister.
Given the unwanted task of aiding the habit wearing menagerie, is Mr. Dean (David Farrar), the British agent for the area. Sister Clodagh (pronounced Clo' da) finds him roguishly attractive, though she dares not let even her eyes suggest it, as he struts around the abbey wearing walking shorts and no shirt. Sister Ruth on the other hand, looks as if she could tear into his man flesh like yesterday's roast beef. Dean becomes a necessary evil for the sisters. Necessary because he is their only link to the civilized world of their past, as well as the only one with knowledge of plumbing and general maintenance, which they desperately need in their disintegrating residence. Evil because his raw masculinity, in such isolation as they find themselves, leads to dangerously sinful thoughts in the minds of Clodagh and Ruth, while creating a rivalry between these two, the seeds of which had long been established. Their conflict only festers the longer they are around Dean.
Sharing a starring role with the actors is Jack Cardiff's sumptuous cinematography, a visual feast in Technicolor. Color plays an important part in differentiating Sister Clodagh's present and the scenes depicting her past life in Ireland. Her pale, unmade face, the only semblance of skin we see among her many layers of white robes and habit, is a sharp contrast to the rouged lips and long auburn hair of a young, fresh and pretty Clodagh we see in flashback. As well, the deep green emerald necklace presented to her by her grandmother, again in flashback, as a wedding gift she'll never receive, illustrates the luster and rich color of her former life while her current station affords no such glamour. These flashback scenes were actually banned in the United States, as too daring a comparison. Along with color, close-ups are also used to outstanding effect. In the scene where Sister Clodagh confronts Sister Ruth about her impure thoughts for Mr. Dean, the quick cut close-ups of both actresses read volumes in dialogue. Likewise, when Ruth snaps mentally and rebuffs her vows to go search out Dean and his red blooded manliness, in a mail order dress and make-up, Clodagh tries to stop her by staying with her in her room. Both the camerawork and acting in this scene are superb. Cardiff won an Academy Award for his cinematography, as did Alfred Junge for Best Art Direction.
Also on hand in a sub plot is Indian actor Sabu, in the role of the Young General, a royal descendant who comes to the nunnery to expand his education. He is a young peacock in his fine clothes and scented handkerchiefs (his cologne, Black Narcissus, is where the book/film get their title). One scene shows him bedecked with jewels, wearing a satin turban and floor length fur coat. He looks like Lana Turner on a night at the Mocambo Club! While at the convent he meets up with Kanshi ( young Jean Simmons), a native servant girl whose hormones are in overdrive. Simmons, who has a substantial role, doesn't speak a word of dialogue in the entire film. Though Kerr, Farrar, et al do a fine job in their parts, acting honors go completely to Kathleen Byron as Sister Ruth. Her descent into lust driven madness is a sight to behold and her final scenes atop the palace bell tower are some of the most chilling and powerful on film (she also bears a striking resemblance to Anne Heche). Powerful is a good word to associate with Black Narcissus. Powerful images, performances, music and themes combine to form a fascinating cinema experience.