“There’s something in the atmosphere that makes everything seem exaggerated.”
A nun (Deborah Kerr) is sent to establish a convent high in the Himalayas, where she and her fellow nuns — Sister Philippa (Flora Robson), Sister Honey (Jenny Laird), Sister Briony (Judith Furse), and Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron) — each confront their personal demons.
Response to Peary’s Review:
The opening line of Peary’s review of Black Narcissus simply exclaims, “An erotic masterpiece about nuns!” Indeed. The creative team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger managed to produce a remarkably “intense adaptation of Rumer Godden‘s novel”, in which a youthful head sister (Kerr) and her four charges “find their commitment to the order greatly tested” as they’re placed in “an exotic setting” — a former “residence of a potentate’s harem… situated on an isolated mountain ledge” which is “dark and haunted by its sinful past”, and where “an eerie wind blows constantly through the empty corridors”. Peary accurately argues that the picture “is splendidly acted, uncompromisingly written…, and ranks as one of the most stunningly beautiful color films of all time, thanks to cinematographer Jack Cardiff” (about whom a recent must-see documentary — Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff  — was just released) “and art director Alfred Junge“. Yet as Peary notes, “viewers” (myself included) “are usually shocked to discover that for the most part the picture was made inside a studio so that Cardiff could better establish the nuns’ terrible sense of claustrophobia”.
In his Alternate Oscars, Peary awards Kerr Best Actress of the Year — after venting about how that year’s Oscar was “wasted” on Loretta Young, who “made only a half-dozen noteworthy movies, and wasn’t all that impressive in any of them”, though he jokingly concedes perhaps she “deserved an Emmy for years of twirling through a door without once ripping her dress as the hostess of… The Loretta Young Show” — ouch! At any rate, in this text, Peary lauds Kerr’s ability to “not… let Kathleen Byron overwhelm her in a much showier part”; yet while Kerr holds her own admirably — she does phenomenal, subtle work representing her character’s emotional arc throughout the narrative — it’s hard to deny that Byron is the protagonist who first comes to mind when thinking back on this film. Her mental derangement — so brilliantly filmed and conceived by all involved (including the make-up artists; see stills below) — provides an unforgettable climax to a truly unique film, one which (surprisingly enough) may ultimately best “belong” to the horror genre (as suggested so persuasively by DVD Savant).
Redeeming Qualities and Moments:
- Deborah Kerr as Sister Clodagh (voted Best Actress of the Year in Peary’s Alternate Oscars)
- Kathleen Byron as Sister Ruth
- Flora Robson as Sister Philippa
- David Farrar as Mr. Dean
- Stunning cinematography by Jack Cardiff
- Alfred Junge’s production design
- The surreal climax
Most definitely. Nominated as one of the Best Pictures of the Year in Peary’s Alternate Oscars.
(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)