Black Narcissus Review
It's rather old hat to suggest that as human beings we have both our basic needs as physical entities and our awareness of ourselves as feeling and thinking creatures. Body and soul, flesh and spirit, even nature and nurture, this duality is a favourite topic of literature and art through the ages. The fact that mankind has split itself in this way from its very beginnings and has seen its own progress as a process of moving from the unfettered animal to the civilized man has caused many to want to capture how we are nowhere near as clever, spiritual or good as we'd like to claim. In film, this has been explored by survivalist scenarios like Straw Dogs and in films where the advent of the supposed civilization of religion is examined as it is in conflict with a more instinctive and natural world. The latter trend has included great films like Bergman's The Virgin Spring, and the wonderful Marketa Lazarova, and these films have looked at the attempts by the Christian church to bring enlightenment to those it regarded as savage.
Powell and Pressburger's Black Narcissus carries with it their impeccable sense of the British abroad, the post colonial imperialists left with only their presumed superiority after the collapse of their empire. In their previous film A Matter of Life and Death, the Archers had looked at the new relationship between Britain and its former colony, the USA, and recognised grievance and difference but also a reversal of roles in terms of power. In Black Narcissus, the colonial nonsense of conquering others or civilizing "savages" through an exported culture is exposed, alongside the struggles for humanity within those supposed to be doing the civilising.
The irony of this attractively modern film, which has a story that in the hands of other film-makers would become colonial porn, is that it was made and cast in a very parochial way. Bar a day of shooting exteriors in the South of England, the shooting never left Pinewood studios, the marvelous backdrops are incredible scale props and mattes are used to perfection to capture the location. Similarly, actors black up with the obvious exception of Sabu and the characterisation of all could be seen as stereotyping if one ignored the fact that even the English cast are portrayed with a degree of parody. So to note this parochialism, one is forced to repeat the Kipling question "What should they know of England who only England know".
The answer is probably to say that time and quality forgives a lot, and in the case of Black Narcissus it is impossible to ignore the basic agreement the film seems to share with Kipling. The nuns who come to set up the convent of St. Faith in what was once euphemistically called "The House of Women", a harem, start to learn how out of their depth they are and, rather than be driven by their calling or the spirit of "What would Christ do", they start to explore their needs. Away from the culture they know, apart from what drove them to be there, they start to share the desires of their new world. The convent starts to drift away as a nostalgic need for home, recognition and belonging overtake the women underneath the uniforms. Civilising the natives becomes secondary to being loved, the drive of emotional and sexual expression, and the longing for home.
Each of the women is very clearly set up symbolically; the gardening nun who is supposed to arrange for sustenance; the impulsive nursing nun who brings disaster through empathy; the physical hardworking nun who tries to soldier through; and the young Sister Superior, Clodagh, and the neurotic and unappreciated Sister Ruth. All lose their bearings in the convent on the mountaintop and they try to keep mind and body together when the sheer compulsion of the physical attempts to overwhelm them. They start by hoping to teach the natives English and Christianity, to offer them medicine and spiritual leadership, but they end up lost in themselves and unsure of anything they believed before they arrived.
In fact, the only English person to remain unaffected is the instinctive and already assimilated Mr Dean. His brusqueness and acceptance of the world around him means that he doesn't want to civilise or enlighten anyone, and gradually his masculinity and usefulness torture the women on the hill. A love triangle forms around him, but the clear suggestion is that this sexual and strong presence has affected the whole convent. Towards the end, the half naked Dean stands amidst the habited nuns and their faces are a mixture of fascination and fear.
Really though this is Deborah Kerr's film. As Sister Clodagh, the youngest sister superior in her order, she is taken down a peg or two as she realises that the broken heart she has run from can't be mended by distraction and that her secular needs have been awoken by Dean. Her position as the agent of evangelism, and to some degree imperialism, is undermined by her needs as a woman and her frailty as a human being. Her early pride and self-importance are destroyed as her project falls down around her ears.
The intention and message of the film means that I rather forgive its Englishness in a way that I don't forgive the films of David Lean, and I think a large part of this is due to Emeric Pressburger's words and insight. As perhaps the unsung partner in the Archers, it needs to be recognised that he offered a more objective eye on the culture he saw. His scripts and words allowed the arrogance of empire to be exposed, and the subtle suggestion that colonial superiority was really a symptom of personal and national insecurities, like Clodagh, than the God given right to rule the world.
The film should be celebrated for just how damn horrific and sexual it remains today. Kathleen Byron's unhinged performance, Cardiff's seductive photography and amazing uses of light, Alfred Junge's incredible designs and Brian Easdale's score, all lend themselves to the hysteria that builds to a climax above the chasm. Byron's eyes when she stands in the doorway intent on killing her love rival and her faint when she reveals herself to Dean lodge themselves in my consciousness and never let me go whenever I have visited. Black Narcissus may start as a calm mission to spread the gospel, but it ends up as a fever dream of sex, death, and near annihilation.
If you didn't know already, Black Narcissus is one of the greatest British films ever made.
Last year's R2 discs of this film were a revelation in terms of quality and Noel wrote a fine appreciation of the excellent French set which you can find in the side-panel of this review. In watching this new Blu-ray, I took some time to compare it with that treatment and as welcome as this great film getting a hi-def transfer is I am unsure that the improvement in detail is as great as you would hope for. The French transfer is less sharp but skintones seem much more cool and the colour stability issue Noel mentions is far less noticeable on that transfer. Watching the two side by side, I did prefer the French disc's handling of colour and felt that grain was less apparent. The new Granada Blu-ray does highlight the dirt on the transfer and the grain, see above in the shot of Flora Robson's robes, and with more vibrant colours the changes in hue caused by the "three strip process" are much more noticeable. Edges have been given a helping hand and I do wonder if some contrast and colour boosting may have been used as well. The new treatment is welcome though and perhaps my hopes were too high for this peculiarly beautiful film.
The mono soundtrack is reproduced here with occasional background humming and very minor distortion, dialogue is clear and crisp and the music never distorts. There are two extras on this single layer disc, with the welcome inclusion of a full 1080p theatrical trailer. The final extra is the featurette, Profile of Black Narcissus, which assembles interviews with Jack Cardiff, Kathleen Byron and contributions from film historian Ian Christie. It deals with the making of the film, including the cast and crew's disappointment that no location shooting in India was required, Powell's tempestuous relationship with Byron and the incredible work that Junge and Cardiff contributed to the visualisation of high altitude India on the stages of Pinewood. The disc is about 70% used and given the wealth of supplements available for this film, the French set is two disc and the Criterion carries a commentary with Powell and Scorsese, this seems a little disappointing.
A great, great film that looks rather wonderful in the brave new world of hi-def. I am not sure that it merits upgrading if you have the existing French set and certainly it is very mean on the special features.