Director: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger
Cast: Deborah Kerr, David Farrar, Kathleen Byron
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World-building is having something of a moment in modern cinema. From Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings to Blade Runner 2049, not to mention the colossal feat of the collected Marvel movies, the scale of film’s ability to paint a universe to fill every inch of the big screen has never been more jaw-dropping, thanks to a combination of CGI wizardry and gargantuan blockbuster budgets. Nobody does world-building, though, like Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, from A Matter of Life and Death’s monochromatic afterlife to the decades-spanning existence of Colonel Blimp. In 1947, they surpassed themselves by creating an entire Himalayan convent in the heights of the isolated mountains – all without stepping foot outside of Pinewood Studios.
The convent is set up by a group of particularly devoted nuns, who are given a house to carry out their goal of establishing an outpost for Christianity. But as each one puts their past behind them to work together for this greater good, suppressed sentiments threaten the whole endeavour. They’re stirred by Mr. Dean (David Farrar), the local Englishman who is an agent for the region’s ruler, and who regards the sisters’ mission with an amused yet kind smile. That smile (and a pair of very short shorts) is enough to turn the head of Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron), much to the disapproval of Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr).
Deborah Kerr and Kathleen Byron are magnetic to watch, each one delivering a remarkable performance that brings complexity and depth to their characters. Kerr is conflicted and concerned in equal measure, while Byron becomes increasingly possessed by lust and envy, and less and less visibly human. Both suffer from not being able to voice their feelings and worries, and their regime of restraint, politeness and tradition forms a claustrophobic contrast to the stunning wildlife blooming and blossoming around them.
DoP Jack Cardiff’s spectacular visuals capture that exotic land with a gorgeous eye, putting Technicolour to vibrant use. And yet, while this is very much a story of Brits overseas, Black Narcissus is a wonderfully dark take on the notion of taming, colonising or imposing a notion of civility and society (and, even, spirituality) upon what these nuns no doubt consider to be an exotic enclave – the fault here lies not with foreign culture, but those who consider it foreign in the first place.
That inward-looking reflection of faults and desires drives the film’s suspense with a riveting flourish of melodrama. How apt, then, that this whole realm is a conjuring trick within a studio by art director Alfred Junge (an Oscar winner for his work here, alongside Cardiff), whose team of matte painters forge a backdrop that drips with convincing detail. Powell and Pressburger scale cinematic heights with this interior crucible of intimacy and intensity, which is charged with an erotic tension as dizzying as the juxtaposition of these white-clad figures against the vertiginous landscape (not to mention the red stabs of violently deployed lipstick). Their precarious world teeters on the brink of a seemingly endless chasm, and the more they try to build it, the more it threatens to slip away from them into the void.
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