Until Powell and Pressburger formed their alliance under 'The Archers' banner, the critical opinion of British cinema was that it generally lagged behind Hollywood's output - both in terms of production value and content; the English zeal for 'polite' drawing room' banter strangely theatrical and un-film-like. Indeed, with the advent of WWII, England lost many an artisan both in front of and behind the camera that might have otherwise made their films the art form they eventually became during the post war generation.
This latter day renaissance is largely due to Powell and Pressburger. Elevating the universal appeal and artistic merit of English cinema to exhilarating heights with the pseudo-historical melodrama, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) and continuing with the WWII drama/sci-fi, A Matter of Life and Death (1946), this contradictory duo were ever-testing the boundaries of art vs. commerce.
While their most easily identifiable film today is undoubtedly The Red Shoes (1948), arguably, the most stunningly poetic of their accomplishments in totem remains Black Narcissus. The screenplay by Powell and Pressburger begins in earnest with Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr) being summoned to the office of Mother Dorothea (Nancy Roberts). The old nun informs Sister Clodagh that she is to be the youngest Sister Superior of a new order - St. Faith - tucked high in the Himalayas. The residence being offered to this new order by the old General (Esmond Knight) was once a palace harem. Perched high atop a Tibetan plateau, it is the old General's wish that the Anglican sisters establish a school and dispensary for the reluctant locals to frequent. To convince the locals to comply, the General is paying them.
Sister Clodagh is given several nuns as her staff at St. Faith by Mother Dorothea; each handpicked for a specific virtue and task: there's popular Sister Honey (Jenny Laird) whom it has been decided shall ingratiate herself to the locals with her winning personality and teach school, prudent Sister Briony (Judith Furse), in charge of administering medical care, stoic Sister Phillipa (Flora Robson) - an experienced gardener to raise herbs and vegetables to sustain the order, and, finally Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron), whom Mother Dorothea has sent away in the hopes that the high altitude will help restore her deteriorating mental health.
Yet, from the moment this expedition arrives at St. Faith they are greeted with disdain by both the local British agent, Mr. Dean (David Farrar) and Angu Ayah (May Hallatt); a mentally unstable groundskeeper who operated inside the palace when it was still a harem. Although Angu merely tests the patience of her new occupants, Mr. Dean challenges and even threatens the sisters' faith in God by presenting himself as a virile man of the world - a constant reminder of the lives they surrendered to become nuns. At one point, Mr. Dean brings his mute concubine, Kanchi (Jean Simmons) to Clodagh, suggesting that her libidinous appetites would be wisely tamed by a residency at St. Faith. Clodagh reluctantly agrees, but finds herself further challenged at keeping Kanchi's desires at bay after the arrival of the Young General (Sabu) who at first claims that he has come to St. Faith to learn and discover Christianity for himself - then, is seduced by Kanchi during a fleeting moment of sexual passion.
Dean's influence is particularly felt by Sister Clodagh, who frequently lapses into memories of her life before the convent and Con (Shaun Noble); the man who abandoned her fervent hopes for marriage and children when he went away. At one point, Sister Clodagh orders that Mr. Dean remove a Tibetan holy man from his perch near St. Faith because she believes his influence is at odds with her own agenda. Instead, Dean heartily refuses, condescendingly asking Clodagh, "What would Christ do?" - implying that Clodagh's methods and actions are more grounded by personal vanity than Christianity. The point is taken to heart and the holy man is allowed to stay.
While the convent unpacks, Sister Ruth narrowly saves the life of a local woman, garnering respect from the locals who regard her healing as magic. Dean sympathizes with Ruth after she is chided for her personal pride by Sister Clodagh, thereby implanting the thought in Ruth's mind that he has taken a romantic fancy in her.
All is not well, however, at St. Faith. Sister Philippa is seduced by the wonderment of the plateau, planting flowers instead of crops, thereby sabotaging St. Faith's ability to become self sustainable. Meanwhile, Sister Briony's inability to provide proper medical care to a sick baby results in the child's death and an instant mistrust by the locals of both the sisters and their work. Abandoning St. Faith to its remote desolation - the sisters are left to fend for themselves.
Until this point, the film's narrative has been fairly straight forward; albeit impeccably realized with solid acting from all the principles and sumptuous, stellar cinematography provided by the brilliant Jack Cardiff. However, the last act of Black Narcissus must rank amongst the most compelling and shocking finales in cinema history.
Ever finding herself at odds with the rigidity of convent life, Sister Ruth rebels. In an attempt to seduce Mr. Dean, Ruth buys a red dress, paints her lips and journeys to Dean's home in the valley. Her amorous affections are rebuked by Dean who declares that he loves no one, even though Sister Ruth rightly assesses that he loves Clodagh. Dean's rejection is enough to push Ruth's mental state over the edge. She returns to St. Faith, intent on murdering Clodagh and nearly succeeds at pushing her over the edge of St. Faith's precariously perched bell tower before plummeting to her own death in the valley far below.
Having failed in her mission to establish an outpost for disseminating Christianity, Clodagh has no choice but to return to Calcutta for retribution and reassignment. Dean accompanies the rnuns on their journey through the jungle, pausing at the crossroads to take Clodagh by her hand for a moment. As Dean looks on with sad farewell in his eyes, Clodagh and her entourage make the turn to Calcutta; monsoon rains darkening the length of their journey home.
In retrospect, Black Narcissus is a work of inimitable erotic fiction; its sublime sexual electricity teeming with rich insights into Sister Clodagh's true self. She seems to embody a singular failing inherent in all man and womankind; our misguided beliefs that reality can be willed to conform to our own idealized image of life as we would wish it to be. In Clodagh's case, her pristine white robes barely conceal an earthy, certainly vane, obsession for human perfection; one that is repeatedly tested by Dean's uninhibited masculinity and his refusal to allow her to uphold any false belief in her own propriety that, after all, is only a pretext.
It is through Dean's challenges to Clodagh that she is able to awaken her sexual past - not begrudgingly so, but rather with fond recollections for that past imperfect. Sister Phillipa's claim that Clodagh 'can see too far' only serves to underscore how much of Clodagh remains shrouded in faux piety from her fellow nuns. It is this kinetic struggle between outward perfection and inward fragility that is at Black Narcissus's core.
Casting is quite superb with Deborah Kerr - on loan from MGM - delving deeply into a wellspring of conflicted emotions. David Ferrar is brilliant as the square jawed, sultry eyed realist who refuses to allow hypocrisy to color his judgment about base human desires. In complete silence, Jean Simmons manages to convey more smouldering sensuality than any amount of dialogue could suggest, while Flora Robson delivers the most subtly nuanced trespass into human clairvoyance.
The other standout performance, of course, belongs to Kathleen Byron as the mad, sexual neurotic; transformed from placid hypocrite, into venomous vixen, before crossing the line into fledgling femme fatale before our very eyes. In the final analysis, Black Narcissus is a film of incredible depth of character, a rich tapestry of conflict set ablaze by the passions of life beyond our rules.
After a disastrous DVD release from Criterion in 2000 that was plagued by chroma bleeding, aliasing and softly focused images, this new Blu-Ray release is a most welcomed sight. The 1:33:1 framed video is, in a word, stunning - magnificently realized from start to finish. Mastered on a Spirit HD Datacine with input from Jack Cardiff and Thelma Schoonmaker, the Blu-Ray excels at showcasing fine detail and natural flesh tones. The Technicolor dye transfer has been given a considerable upgrade and the results are near flawless. There are several extremely minor examples of edge enhancement that crop up but will surely not distract. The audio is mono as originally recorded. It can be strident, but on the whole compliments the image.
Extras include a video introduction and video appreciation for the film (in French) by Bertrand Tavernier, a profile of the film containing archival and new interviews with Cardiff, Byron and other surviving crew members, historians and film makers, a featurette on Jack Cardiff's work and the film's original theatrical trailer.
Bottom line: highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)