UK TV review: Black Narcissus (2020)
Ivan Radford | On 27, Dec 2020
“They teach us that desire belongs to men. That we are vessels for men’s desire.” That’s Sister Clodagh (Gemma Arterton) in Black Narcissus, BBC One and FX’s take on the classic tale of faith, duty and lust. Amanda Coe (Apple Tree Yard) here adapts Rumer Godden’s 1939 novel, which was famously turned into a film by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger back in 1947. Directed by Charlotte Bruus Christensen, it’s an adaptation that gives more life and depth to its female-led ensemble.
The nuns are, as in the previous films, charged with setting up a convent in the Himalayas. Sister Clodagh is at the head of the group, which includes the cheerful Sister Briony (Rose Cavaliero), the hard-working Sister Philippa (Karen Bryson), who becomes intoxicated with the local fauna, the steadfast Sister Adela (Gina McKee) and the young Sister Ruth (Aisling Franciosi). Their mission, though, is disrupted – and distracted – by the arrival of Mr Dean (Alessandro Nivola), the handyman who helps around the place, at the behest of the local general (Kulvinder Ghir).
Frissons of tension soon start to stir between the members of the convent, with Sister Ruth particularly becoming enamoured with Nivola’s rustic, sweaty figure. Sister Clodagh, though, is not immune to his rugged charms either, and what ensues is a bitter jealousy between Ruth and Clodagh, the former naive and increasingly frustrated by their chaste existence, the latter haunted by temptation and trying to keep on the straight and narrow.
With an additional hour to explore these intriguing two leads, the three-part drama introduces flashbacks of Clodagh’s heated past – which she still regularly atones for – and Arterton is fantastic at stepping into Deborah Kerr’s shoes, highligting the ego and righteousness of the “superior” sister who is nonetheless genuinely concerned for her wards. Aisling Franciosi is equally impressive, bringing a vulnerability to Sister Ruth that’s simultaneously fuelled by and fuels her adolescent envy. The result is a steamier, more vibrant study of desire and doubt, and of creeping disillusion.
Charlotte Bruus Christensen, who was DoP on A Quiet Place, brings a close, darkly tense atmosphere through her stylish visuals, even toying with supernatural hints of a ghost from a tragic past incident. But those spooky elements don’t lead to anything substantial, which leaves several key moments instead feeling like echoes of Powell and Pressburger’s iconic incarnation of the novel.
There’s a welcome improvement on that film’s casting, with culturally appropriate actors playing the young student Kanchi (Dipika Kunwar) and her sultry suitor Dilip Rai (Chaneil Kular). The series, if anything, could do with an additional hour to delve more into their story and the context that surrounds this British effort to impose ideals, institutions and expectations upon everyone in sight – something that, through this show’s modern lens, is framed more critically, with Ruth’s outbursts seeming less unsaintly and more frankly truthful. The result is a handsomely framed retread of familiar territory, which teases out the narcissism of the tale’s title and the ignored female desire at its heart. If only its achievements felt more tangibly explicit than, ironically, slightly too repressed.
Black Narcissus is available on BBC iPlayer from 9pm on Sunday 27th December, with the three episodes airing nightly.