Monday, 7 December 2009


“Vanity, revenge, loneliness, boredom, all apply: Lust is one of the least of the reasons for promiscuity.” - Mignon McLaughlin

At the weekend we watched a 1947 British film directed by Michael Powell and Emmeric Pressburger, their “Black Narcissus”. This was a technicolour film, which used colour to great effect, but also with great restraint when it needed to. The cinematography by Jack Cardiff is quite stunning, especially considering that the scenery was mostly painted backdrops and involved glass backing shots (considering it was 62 years ago), were quite sophisticated an very realistic. Ivor Beddoes the scenic artist who also looked after the special effects did a remarkably good job. The music, costumes, sound and technical production of the film were also all quite remarkable. We watched the movie on BluRay and it was a superb quality experience.

The plot concerns five young British nuns who are invited to move to a windy “palace”, the former residence of the concubines of an old general, on the top of a mountain in Mopu, in the Himalayas. Their mission is to convert the “house of sin” to the convent of Saint Faith, with a school for children and girls, and an infirmary for the local people. Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr) is assigned as the sister superior, and her liaison with civilisation is the rude but very manly, government agent Mr. Dean (David Farrar). Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron) is rather unstable and the isolation, her jealousy of Sister Clodagh and her carnal desire of Mr Dean, become the impetus for a many tragic event.

The plot is embroidered with a couple of sub-plots, one involving a liaison between servant girl Kanchi (Jean Simmons) and the Young General (Sabu), while another involves the interaction of the Westerners with the natives, especially the culture clash on matters of religion, medicine and love. Flora Robson plays Sister Philippa, the nun in charge of the garden who has to battle her own demons, while May Hallatt plays with great gusto the native housekeeper of the convent Angu Ayah. David Farrar makes great effort to appear dashing, but the unfortunate choice of costume in the initial scenes provoked laughter with us. His floppy hat with feathers, shot-sleeved shirt, shorts and sandals have got to be seen to be appreciated!

This was an engaging, well-crafted film based on Rumer Godden’s novel, which was made through the efforts of many talented people in a manner that is rarely replicated nowadays. The acting was superb, with top honours going to Deborah Kerr and Kathleen Byron, whose screen interaction was quite electric. Kathleen Byron’s portrayal of the unbalanced Sister Ruth is masterly, although it may appear a little melodramatic to today’s audiences. Deborah Kerr’s acting centres on her face and every muscle, every blink, every twitch is significant and well played. Jean Simmons has a silent role, but manages to be very winsome and plays her scenes with great enjoyment.

I recommend the film to everyone who enjoys old movies, especially those of a more sedentary, cerebral nature. The plot is rich in innuendo and there is much to be read into simple remarks and fleeting glimpses afforded to us by the camera. Incidentally the “Black Narcissus” of the title is a perfume and symbol of decadence and moral terpitude. There are no car chases, no elephant stampedes and no battle scenes in this movie. However, it was a delight to watch and artistically it was one of the best British films of the 1940s I have seen.


  1. It's been ages since I last watched any old films, though vaguely recall seeing some with nuns in them in the past.

    Deborah Kerr was a good actress though, so I'm sure the film would be worth looking up.

  2. This sounds like a movie I would really enjoy seeing. thanks for the recomendation Nic!!!

  3. From your review, Nicholas, I can immediately see that this is my sort of movie.
    I'll order it on the net. I love Deborah Kerr!