Saturday, 9 January 2021

Streaming on the BBC (in the UK) and elsewhere - John Baxter grapples with the remake of the Powell & Pressburger classic BLACK NARCISSUS (Charlotte Bruus Christensen, UK, 2020)

Gemma Arterton, Alessandro Nivola, Black Narcissus

         Not much hope of a fair hearing for the BBC 3/FX/Hulu three-part adaptation of Rumer Godden’s 1939 novel Black Narcissus. The 1947 film by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger is among British cinema’s incontestable masterpieces. As well remake The Third Man or The Red Shoes.

          Britons traditionally saw Indians as comic-opera figures who wore turbans, carried umbrellas, and spoke goodness-gracious-me English  But by 1939, Gandhi, a British-educated attorney who mobilised all India in bare feet and a loincloth, had them stumped. Who knew what to expect next?

         Godden’s novel gave a hint. Set in 1934, it describes how five British nuns attempt to start a school at Mopu, an old palace on a Nepalese mountain-top, only to succumb to their own weaknesses and that of their culture. No longer rulers of empire, they confront a cultural precipice, signified by Mopu’s exposed cliff-edge location.

         As in India, nothing in the book is what it seems, beginning with the title, which doesn’t refer to a flower but to a perfume imported from London by Dilip Rai (Chaneil Kular), the young Anglicised heir to the local grandee, the Old General.It clashes with India’s true odours, an olfactory assault Godden evoked as "urine and sewage and the lovely flowers of the thorn trees." 

         The draughty old building is a former harem, the unsavoury reputation of which it’s hoped the nuns’ presence will redeem. Instead it has the opposite effect. Dilip Rai is caught with his hands up the sari of Kanchi (Dipika Kunwar), a doe-eyed discard from the bed of Dean (Alessandro Nivola), who manages the General’s tea plantations. The sister charged with growing vegetables surrenders to religious ecstasy and plants flowers. Clodagh, the young sister superior (Gemma Arterton), spends most of her time reacting in exasperation to the errors of her subordinates, and trying to fix the plumbing before summoning the omnicompetent Dean with his wrench. 

Gemma Arterton

         Clodagh is tormented by memories of the lover who drove her to enter the order. As her control of the community weakens, she takes refuge in erotic memories, for which she punishes herself with flagellation. One by one, the veils of her belief fall away. As she leaves with the surviving sisters, she drops the last, revealing to Dean, now her only friend, the name she gave up for God. 

         Before then Sister Ruth (Aisling Franciosi), a paranoid schizophrenic, has gone on a murderous rampage and almost killed her. Godden knew from experience the violence that lay just beneath the surface of Indian life. She and her children barely survived a homicidal cook who put opium, marijuana and ground glass into their food. 

Aisling Franciosi

         Unable to shoot in the Himalayas, Powell and Pressburger relied on miniatures and back-painting. Godden detested the result. "I saw it only once, but never again,” she said. “It is an absolute travesty of the book, I cannot bear it. Micky Powell said he saw it as a fairy tale, whereas for me it was true. The whole thing was an abomination." 

         The role of Clodagh made Deborah Kerr a star, and gave Kathleen Byron, an actress of modest gifts, her career-best performance as Sister Ruth, the embodiment of malice and sexual jealousy. Jack Cardiff and Alfred Junge also won Oscars for cinematography and design. The need to match their achievement probably influenced the choice of Danish cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen to both shoot and direct this, her first feature. A second unit also filmed in Nepal, giving a useful sense of the distances and terrain to be negotiated and the remoteness of Mopu.  

         With an additional hour of screen time to fill, scenarist Amanda Coe slightly enlarges the role of the mother superior (Diana Rigg, in her last performance) and gives Jim Broadbent some scenes as a priest. More significantly, she introduces the backstory of a maharanee who threw herself off the cliff. The locals believe her ghost haunts the building, and a few glimpses of a distraught Indian face in a mirror next to Ruth’s suggest she has made herself at home among her delusions. 

          Francoisi’s Ruth dominates the final episode, taunting Clodagh almost at will. It’s not the most subtle of performances but it doesn’t have to be. The momentum of the story carries her. As in Rebecca,where the heroine undergoes a similar ordeal, the effect is to make the malefactor more interesting. Rebecca’s  heroine is nameless - but who can forget Mrs. Danvers? 

         Ruth comes to a flamboyant end, discarding her habit for some glad rags and lipstick before throwing herself at Dean, then trying to push Clodagh to her death. Powell and Pressburger never explained where Ruth got the red dress Byron wears for her grand finale – surely British Post didn’t deliver to the Himalayas – but the maharanee of the new version has conveniently left behind a well-stocked wardrobe. 

         In the United States, the first Black Narcissus ran foul of the Catholic-dominated Breen office, which insisted the nuns be clearly identified as Protestant, and Clodagh’s sexy past downplayed. The 2020 version redresses the balance, sometimes to excess. We get more  of Clodagh’s reveries but only a muttered and fragmentary description of the events behind them. A similar backstory devoted to Ruth would also have helped.

         In contrast to David Farrar’s pipe-sucking joviality in the first film, Alessandro Nivola’s Dean is a convincingly embittered spokesman for rationality, as well as a believable object of fantasy for the emotionally deprived sisters. One wonders, however, why Coe didn’t use one of Farrar’s best lines. Asked to adjudicate on a moral question, he silences everyone by enquiring innocently “What would Jesus do?” Stay out of India for a start.

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