Black Narcissus (1947)

black narcissus poster 1947 movie
8.5 Overall Score
Story: 8/10
Acting: 9/10
Visuals: 10/10

Amazing colors and visuals

Takes a wild turn at the end, story development feels like it is too much too quick

Movie Info

Movie Name:   Black Narcissus

Studio:   General Film Distributors

Genre(s):   Drama

Release Date(s):   May 26, 1947

MPAA Rating:   Not Rated

black narcissus bell ringing scene

Ok,, if this was real, I think a guard rail would be appropriate by OSHA standards.

Sister Superior Clodagh (Deborah Kerr) has been tasked with taking a group of nuns to the Himalayas and setting up a convent to teach and convert the people of the land.  With the strange, exotic nature of the mountains, temptation comes in many forms including Mr. Dean (David Farrar) a British resident worker who isn’t afraid to tempt the nuns.  As the nuns try to win the trust of the people, Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron) finds herself questioning her own faith and vows in the presence of Mr. Dean.  Trust is tricky however, and with attempts to teach a local Indian prince (Sabu) and a promiscuous dancing girl named Kanchi (Jean Simmons), the nuns will have to prove themselves…if they don’t destroy themselves first.

Directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, Black Narcissus is a drama with psychological aspects.  The film is based on Rumer Godden’s 1939 novel and won the Academy Award for Best Cinematography—Color and Best Art Direction-Set Decoration—Color.  A new mini-series adaptation of the story was released in 2020.  The Criterion Collection remastered the film (Criterion #93).

Black Narcissus is an odd movie.  It plays upon old “Eastern” and “Oriental” stereotypes of the seduction of what was the British Empire.  Instead of simply the draw of Asia and a culture clash, the characters are seduced and have their doubts and desires surface…and they all just happen to be nuns.

black narcissus love triangle david farrar deborah kerr kathleen byron

This is a strange love triangle…

The story has a strange flow.  A good bit of the first part of the film is just about the seduction of the nuns by the land and the people.  It all seems to be going ok (minus a few flaws), but then it takes a drastic turn and the whole tone of the movie seems to change to a psychological drama with Kathleen Byron’s character going insane.  The British Empire was losing India at the time the film was made and the country voted for independence just after the film’s release.  Even though the book was written before this, there is a seed of this in the film by showing the nuns don’t belong there and cannot survive there.

Deborah Kerr is solid as the leader of the nuns with a past of her own.  She does a good job as someone trying to hold something together that is falling apart.  David Farrar plays the cocky Mr. Dean whose actions are almost more harmful than that of the people (which is ironic since he causes the downfall even more so than “the land”).  Kathleen Byron is good as the creepy Sister Ruth but her character seems to go off the deep in a bit too quickly in the film.  Indian film star Sabu plays “the Young General” and is the only real Indian in a major role in the film (most other big roles were played by white actors made-up to appear like Indians).

She’s cuckoo for Coco-Puffs!

What Black Narcissus does perfectly is provide an amazing world in its visuals.  The film just pops (even today).  Primarily filmed on a set in England, the film’s backdrops and colors are so vibrant and bright.  It looks amazing today, and it would really have wowed audiences who wouldn’t have expected the visuals.

Black Narcissus is an interesting film if nothing else in a bit of historical context.  The movie covers a strange period for India and England and uses an even stranger subject to do it in a cast of nuns.  The movie often makes the “best of” lists of British films and has maintained a classic cinema feel to it despite slightly more modern themes which combine with the great visuals…real or not, I’m still not going to go out on that ledge to ring that bell.

Author: JPRoscoe View all posts by
Follow me on Twitter/Instagram/Letterboxd @JPRoscoe76! Loves all things pop-culture especially if it has a bit of a counter-culture twist. Plays video games (basically from the start when a neighbor brought home an Atari 2600), comic loving (for almost 30 years), and a true critic of movies. Enjoys the art house but also isn't afraid to let in one or two popular movies at the same time.

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