'Black Narcissus': TV Review

Black Narcissus
Courtesy of FX
Lovely to look at, solidly acted and too close to the classic movie to avoid comparisons.
11/23/2020

Rumer Godden's novel about a remote convent in the Himalayas, previously adapted to the screen by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, gets an FX limited series treatment starring Gemma Arterton, Alessandro Nivola and Aisling Franciosi.

It's my deep, dark secret (one I'm happy to admit to anybody) that I don't hate Gus Van Sant's Psycho. Sure, I'd watch the Hitchcock original 100 more times before wanting to revisit Vince Vaughn's take on Norman Bates, yet the much reviled shot-for-shot remake still interests me as a bizarre art project. It's a worthwhile comparative text on small performance variations and how the most precise piece of mimicry does or doesn't yield the same impact as the original.

FX's miniseries adaptation Black Narcissus isn't quite as slavish a reproduction of the classic film from Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, but it also isn't different enough to feel like a decisively distinct adaptation of Rumer Godden's novel. Since director Charlotte Bruus Christensen doubles as cinematographer, it might not be surprising that she's less emulating Powell and Pressburger's direction and more channeling Jack Cardiff's Oscar-winning cinematography or that the result is visually beautiful. The series is solidly acted, occasionally expansive and never something I would ever choose to watch again rather than just checking in on the old friend that is the 1947 film.

It happens that the Powell and Pressburger film is, itself, a reasonably straightforward adaptation of Godden's book. And so Amanda Coe's version finds a comparable storytelling structure, repeats some of the same directly lifted snippets of dialogue and, in what is surely my favorite thing about the new take, remains committed to defying simple genre categorization.

The story begins in Darjeeling, India, where Sister Clodagh (Gemma Arterton) is being placed in charge of a newly opened convent in the remote reaches of the Himalayas. Mother Dorthea (Diana Rigg) has concerns about Clodagh's ego and the risks of making her a Mother Superior at such a young age, but the convent, set up in a former house of ill-repute for the local general (Kulvinder Ghir), is a questionably desirable assignment. Bad and unspecified things happened with the German order that previously tried to open a school in Mopu.

Clodagh is given a small team of hastily introduced nuns — basically Sister Botany (Karen Bryson's Blanche), Sister Happy (Rose Cavaliero's Briony) and Sister Crazypants (Aisling Franciosi's Ruth) — and they're sent on their way to the precarious mountainside palace. In one of the most breathtakingly isolated places on Earth, the women experience disorientation and disassociation that causes several of them to question their sanity and their calling. Hardly helping matters is their only point of English-speaking contact, Mr. Dean (Alessandro Nivola). Mr. Dean has the colonially specific title of "General's agent," but he's more of a boozy, leering handyman, think Schneider in something of a Nun Day At a Time.

There are some incidents in Black Narcissus, particularly with the arrival of the General's inquisitive nephew Dilip Rai (Chaneil Kular) and his flirtations with saucy fallen woman and student Kanchi (Dipika Kunwar). Mostly, though, it's three episodes of building nebulous tension.

The story has touches of gothic horror and one could argue that ghosts and possession are part of its DNA, though I think arguing that becomes a recipe for leaving viewers disappointed when what they get instead is a group of nuns unraveling against a mountainous backdrop. Though murder and sex lurk in the corner of nearly every frame, as either threats or temptation, the narrative more frequently deals with crises of faith and confidence. Coe and Christensen thankfully resist any temptations of their own to spell anything out further. It's still a story of women whose hopes of carving out an autonomous and spiritual space at the end of the world gets spoiled by the patriarchy, but also by the maddening wind, which fills the sound design in nearly every frame.

The 1947 film, as great as it is, leaves a couple key places for improvement. Not to take anything away from Jean Simmons in brownface with a bejeweled nose-ring or May Hallatt's unlikely blend of brownface and a Cockney accent, but casting actors with Indian or Nepalese heritage in key supporting roles is a large improvement. Kular, Kunwar and Nila Aalia supply naturalism in the place of the movie's caricatures.

There's an awareness and sensitivity that extend to certain aspects of the costuming and production design as well. But Sister Clodagh and the nuns of the Convent of St. Faith don't make any effort to understand the natives and their culture, so Coe and Christensen don't take advantage of the extra time to venture deep into the neighboring villages and their residents. It's a story about outsiders and otherizing and proselytizing, none of which work out well for our heroines.

The new creative team is more committed to the second place for improvement, namely the treatment of Catholicism and cloister life. The Legion of Decency made the filmmakers steer away from Clodagh's lusty former life and from much of her religious doubt. Here, the deprivations and sacrifices are more central, the austerity more ominous. Pushing the idea of the custodia oculorum, or "custody of the eyes," to the forefront is a wonderful idea because the concept — based on governing one's gaze and not being distracted by things that might endanger one's soul — is always relevant in a world in which every vista, even out onto God's majesty, can be a distraction from divine purpose.

This is Christensen's directing debut and her training as a cinematographer is evident in every frame. Only a few shots — anything relating to the iconic imagery of the bell tower, really — are directly lifted from Cardiff, but the theatrical lighting, often conveyed through colored filtered or geometric windows, does him proud. Part of this Black Narcissus was apparently shot in Nepal and I wish I could tell you there were benefits. Yes, the second unit shots of snow-covered mountains and winding hillside paths are beautiful, but not in a way that's markedly different from the movie's Percy Day matte paintings and the illusion they cast.

The series is all sturdily acted, with Arterton making the most of fleeting flashbacks to tease out some of the passion under Clodagh's solemn, fracturing exterior. As Sister Ruth, Franciosi has what is the piece's breakout role, falling victim to various desires and insecurities in ways that are heartbreaking without mimicking Kathleen Byron's operatic turn in the movie. Despite knowing the story well, I still don't quite understand Mr. Dean's motivations as a character and I don't think you're supposed to, so Nivola's mixture of decency and buffoonery is on-point. However small their roles, the presence of actors like Rigg, Jim Broadbent and Gina McKee only helps build out this world.

FX is calling Black Narcissus a "limited series," but airing it entirely on Monday (November 23) night, in a format we used to call an "original movie," probably is a mistake. It may be better taking in this Black Narcissus in three hour-long blocks (without commercials). Otherwise you just have another reason to compare it to a tighter, still ravishing 100-minute movie I'd recommend you check out on HBO Max.

Cast: Gemma Arterton, Alessandro Nivola, Aisling Franciosi, Diana Rigg, Jim Broadbent, Rosie Cavaliero, Karen Bryson, Patsy Ferran, Nila Aalia, Kulvinder Ghir, Chaneil Kular, Dipika Kunwar, Gina McKee, Soumil Malla, Gianni Gonsalves

Creator: Amanda Coe from the book by Rumer Godden

Director: Charlotte Bruus Christensen

Airs Monday, November 23, at 8 p.m. ET/PT.