Black Narcissus (1947) – Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger

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The next recommendation from Great Movies – 100 Years of Film following Pandora’s Box, is this 1947 classic starring Deborah Kerr, based on Rumer Godden’s novel.

A rundown palace, remotely positioned in the Himalayan mountains is the new location for a hospital and school to be run by a small group of nuns, led by newly commissioned Mother Superior, Sister Clodagh (Kerr). Clodagh joined the order after suffering heartbreak in her Irish homeland, and instead has tried to devote her life to god. She is surprised by the position being given to her, and not sure about the other nuns assigned to the mountain top, particularly Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron).

Still, everyone is striving to make the best of the opportunity given them, but troubles arise in the forms of jealousy, sickness and the appearance of Mr. Dean (David Farrar), who is liasing between the locals and the nuns.

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The backdrop of the film is gorgeous, though mostly filmed on sets, the exterior locations are stunning and beautiful, helping to ground the reality of the film.

Moving smoothly, the story introduces us to a wide cast of characters including a Young General (Sabu) who falls in love with a lower caste girl, Kanchi (Jean Simmons), both of whom are learning at the school.

Dean’s arrival on the scene constantly upsets the tranquility that the sisters are seeking, stirring both Clodagh and Ruth.

Ruth in fact becomes insanely jealous of the perceived relationship between Clodagh and Dean and seems to be willing to go to any lengths to have him for herself. Despite the fact that he doesn’t seem remotely interested in her.

The other Sisters, Honey (Jenny Laird) and Briony (Judith Furse) do their best to work with the children, tend the sick, and garden, keeping busy in their service to the lord, but that doesn’t stop problems from arising for all of them, until the very continuing existence of the outpost is brought into question.

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The film is beautifully shot and paced, and the performances are layered and strong, a fantastic film that could have been shot yesterday, but was made in 1947… simply stunning; especially when I discovered that a lot of the Himalayan and palace shots were created in studio with glass shots and hanging miniatures… just wow.

The film took two Oscars, Cinematography and Art Direction, and deservedly so, the entire look of the film is tone perfect – the sisters all in whites and dull greys, with occasional splashes of color, both on and around them… until the climax, the beautiful mountains and surrounding lands, I’ve rarely seen a film so perfectly balanced in its visual presentation.

Kerr is engaging as Clodagh, and looks stunning in her flashbacks. Ruth, one can actually empathize with in regards to what happens to her, the loneliness and isolation has its toll on people, and in such a remote location, it’s no wonder that some would start to lose control.

A fascinating film, and highly enjoyable to watch, I was glad to discover this one for the first time.

Have you seen this one, and what did you think of it? Or have you read the original novel?? Let me know!

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