If you’ve never seen a film by the Archers (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger), you’ve never seen a film like one of theirs’. If you have seen a film by the Archers, and you sit down to watch another of their films, you’ve still never seen a film like the one you’re about to watch. I’m not much of an Archers scholar–Black Narcissus is probably their most famous film and this viewing is my first–but I have seen a couple, not counting their last film–the awful Australian tourist film, They’re a Weird Mob (to be fair, Powell directed and Pressburger wrote, usually they shared duties).
The film’s story–nuns in the Himalayas–is probably impossible to describe. So much of the film depends on feeling, on little things. Describing the film, also, would cheapen it. I’ve had Black Narcissus to watch for quite a while and kept putting it off. I don’t know why, probably because the Archers made such great films, my expectations were incredibly high. The film met those expectations and even surpassed them, since it had me off-guard throughout, even when what I assumed was going to happen did. Black Narcissus doesn’t “give” the audience a lot, it expects them to take a lot from it. I can’t imagine what my response to this film would have been ten years ago, when I was first getting into Criterion laserdiscs and might have come across it for the Martin Scorsese commentary. (I could get Goodfellas at seventeen, but Goodfellas isn’t all that quiet).
There’s so much to look at in Black Narcissus, so many things one could talk about, I’ve mostly run out of ideas. The acting is great–the supporting cast has a lot to do and they’re all wonderful. You know these characters, even though there are quite a few, right away. Jack Cardiff’s cinematography is famous on this film and it is amazing–even more, I suppose, since it was all shot with miniatures and matte paintings–but the editing is fantastic too. The editing makes a lot of the film.
I can’t recommend this film highly enough… certainly don’t wait around to see it like I did.
Directed and produced by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger; screenplay by Powell and Pressburger, from the novel by Rumer Godden; director of photography, Jack Cardiff; edited by Reginald Mills; music by Brian Easdale; production designer, Alfred Junge; released by General Film Distributors.
Starring Deborah Kerr (Sister Clodagh), Sabu (Young Prince), David Farrar (Mr. Dean), Kathleen Byron (Sister Ruth), Esmond Knight (Old General), Flora Robson (Sister Philippa) and Jean Simmons (Kanchi).