|A FilmExposed Film Review
Dir: Michael Powell / Emeric Pressburger, 1946, UK, 100 mins
Cast: Deborah Kerr, David Farrar, Kathleen Byron, Jean Simmons, Sabu
Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's sensual and enigmatic fantasy Black Narcissus returns to UK cinemas in a beautiful, new, digitally-restored print.
Sister Clodagh (Kerr) is charged with founding a new convent in the Himalayas with a small, mixed group of nuns from her order. But when the Sisters arrive in their remote new home they discover the building was once the location of the Prince's harem, and before long they find their own womanly urges stirred by their exotic surroundings, and especially by masculine local envoy Mr Dean (Farrar). Will the holy women maintain their composure, or will they submit to their submerged longings?
Black Narcissus has always been a beautiful picture, but it has probably never looked better than it does now in this new digitized version. Jack Cardiff's Technicolor work is pin sharp, the colours rich and vivid, and the cast truly stunning. The sheer detail now visible proves what one always suspected - that each shot is a work of art. The outdoor scenes, featuring some of the most masterful matte work ever, are a delight, but it is the close ups that probably impress the viewer the most, having all the depth and intimacy of a Karsh portrait. Deborah Kerr and Kathleen Byron look every inch iconic screen stars, while David Farrar's craggy features appear to have been chiselled from the same imposing stone the convent itself is built on. And Jean Simmons, although rather absurdly 'blacked up' to give her an Indian complexion, offers a decidedly sensual performance as local waif Kanchi. The film is vibrant and painterly throughout, with its lavish sunsets and elaborate costumes, and makes such clever use of the 4:3 aspect ratio that one wonders why Cinemascope was ever invented.
The story remains an oddity when seen from a 21st century perspective, however. Filmed entirely in Pinewood and Kent, Powell and Pressburger's Himalayan village has a bizarrely diverse local population, as if having one parent from east of the Urals was enough to qualify any actor to be an extra on the picture. Its take on mystical eastern culture is only a shade more sophisticated than TV's It Ain't Half Hot, Mum - all ascetic fakirs and pouting dancing girls. And even the nuns themselves - surely more familiar ground for the directors than Buddhist villagers - are perhaps a little too histrionic in their faltering piety.
But there is no denying the ravishing spectacle and the subdued eroticism here. More than anything else, Black Narcissus is about simple sensations and the pleasures of the flesh - sweet perfume, delicate flowers, fresh milk and heavy rainfall. And this new print makes all of these sensations more deliciously tangible than ever before.