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Posts Tagged ‘Kathleen Byron’

Michael Powell and Emeric Pressberger’s Black Narcissus was released in 1947. With some films, mostly recently ones, the date of release is just another bit of hopefully-useful information. But, the world being as it is today, in the case of Black Narcissus you do have to bear in mind the context in which it was made. I have no doubt that some modern viewers will find this movie to be highly offensive and objectionable, without much of interest to offer; nevertheless, it still made it into a list of the top fifty British films ever made in a BFI poll at the end of the 20th century.

 

It’s a little hard to be sure, but there’s nothing to suggest that Black Narcissus is not intended to be set in the period it was made (and some have suggested this would be thematically appropriate). The story concerns a group of nuns who are sent to open a school and hospital in a wind-swept former seraglio, high atop a cliff in the Himalayas. In charge is Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr), who is young, confident, and ambitious – her (mother) superior is concerned she is not yet ready for this demanding role, but allows the appointment to go ahead regardless.

The sisters find their new home to be a demanding place to live, to say the least: the local villagers have to be paid to visit the school and dispensary, while the local English agent, Dean (David Farrar), makes his feelings on the subject quite clear – this is no place for a nunnery, and the undertaking is doomed to failure,

Stresses slowly build up both around and within the old palace. Sister Clodagh finds it impossible to entirely forget a failed love affair which led to her joining the order, while one of the other nuns, Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron), develops a fixation on Dean himself. The path between religious devotion and a life in the world proves to be a hazardous one.

The first problem that some modern audiences may have with Black Narcissus is that it is a seriously-intentioned film about nuns. Commercial films about nuns nowadays are rarely serious: they tend to fall into two groups, those that are knockabout mainstream comedies (I am thinking of Nuns on the Run and Sister Act), and those aimed at – how shall one put it? – a more niche audience. Exploitation films, in other words. (Given that a new horror movie actually called The Nun is doing the rounds, I suppose we must mention this as well.)

But back in the 1940s it was perfectly acceptable to take nuns seriously and make serious films about them, even when the nuns wore extraordinary wimples like the ones in Black Narcissus. It was also okay to make films about the British Empire in which the Empire itself was presented quite neutrally, as a matter of fact rather than the source of retroactive breast-beating – Black Narcissus isn’t an explicitly imperial film, but it is shot through with the values and attitudes of empire. ‘They’re like children,’ is how the local people are described; they are also apparently ‘primitive’ and one character comments that ‘they all look the same’.

If this wasn’t enough to outrage the sensibilities of a modern young progressive, this is a film with an Indian setting in which most of the Indian performers only appear as extras (hired from the docks in Rotherhithe, apparently). Of the key Indian roles, one is played by Sabu Dastigir, while the others are played by Europeans wearing heavy make-up (one of these is an early role for Jean Simmons).

And if all this, coupled to the fact that this is a film concerned with an unfashionable moral idea (self-denial), is enough to make you dismiss it as a hideous exemplar of outdated attitudes, notable only as a warning from history – well, I can hardly stop you from having an opinion. The 1940s were different to the modern world, certainly – but personally I don’t think this is in and of itself sufficient reason to dismiss a film from this period out of hand.

If nothing else there is the film’s technical achievement to consider. The first few times I watched Black Narcissus I could only marvel at the ability of Powell and Pressberger to shoot a film on location in the Himalayas in the late 40s, let alone make it look so good. Of course, I now know better: most of the sweeping mountain vistas are there courtesy of back projection and matte paintings, the production not going further from Pinewood Studios than Sussex. And yet it has a tremendous atmosphere and sense of place to it.

Much of this comes from Jack Cardiff’s justly celebrated cinematography, filling the screen with vibrant colours; it’s a feast for the eyes. And here we come to what the film is really about. I find it hard to think of Black Narcissus as the ‘erotic’ film which so many others find it to be – the word carries too many connotations these days – but it is certainly one which is sensuous and heady with passion, especially as it goes on.

The central irony of the story is that it concerns a group of women who have chosen to devote themselves to lives of strict self-discipline, who find themselves living in a palace formerly occupied by the pleasure-girls of a bygone age. They are meant to be in the world but not of it, according to the charter of their order – neither the ascetic Indian holy man who makes his hermitage just a bit too close for Sister Clodagh’s liking, nor Dean’s dissolute hedonist, but somewhere in between the two.

And the story is about showing what a hard road they have picked for themselves. Quite apart from Sister Clodagh’s issues with her own past, the others find it hard to keep their emotions under control. A sympathetic sister gives medicine to a sick child, inadvertently placing the whole community in danger. The nun in charge of the garden can’t resist planting flowers instead of vegetables, seduced by their colour and beauty. And, centrally, Sister Ruth cannot control her desire for Dean.

Most of Black Narcissus is carried by very solid performances by Deborah Kerr and David Farrar, but it is Kathleen Byron’s remarkable turn as the unhinged Sister Ruth that lingers in the mind and really makes the climax of the film work. The film has quietly tacked between drama and melodrama until now, with occasional moments of gentle comedy, but as Ruth loses her mind it threatens to transform into full-on psychological horror, with the lapsed nun plotting murderous violence against the woman she perceives as rival.

I suppose it’s all quite symbolic: the nuns live halfway up a mountain, midway between the pure and airy vaults of the heavens and the colourful, earthy world below. The trick is to find a way of staying there. Sister Ruth succumbs to the attraction of worldly pleasures, and, well, falls off the mountain as a consequence.

The question is whether the mountainside is a tenable place to live in the first place. The film suggests not, but an ending that should feel sombre and downbeat is also quite muted: the rains come to the mountain valley, the land is revitalised, the cycle of life goes on, with or without the presence of the holy women. Perhaps retreat (in both senses of the word) is the only option for the sisters – but if they are mistaken in their ambitions, the film is at least sympathetic to them. Whatever else it is, this is a thoughtful, beautifully made film from one of the UK’s greatest cinematic partnerships.

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