Starring: Deborah Kerr, David Farrar, Jenny Laird
Director: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger
Running Time: 101 mins
Black Narcissus is a British film about a group of nuns who attempt to establish a convent in an isolated Himalayan palace, but begin to struggle as the effects of the harsh environment set in.
Though I didn’t find it to be the mind-bending, psychologically distressing story it often aims to be, it can’t be denied that there’s something powerfully unnerving about Black Narcissus. Complete with striking performances, music and production design, everything about the film is there to put you on the edge of your seat, something it achieves rather successfully throughout.
In fact, let’s start with that very notion, because while Black Narcissus isn’t a thriller per se, it is a film that’s meant to have a nerve-wracking, intoxicating intensity to it. There are two levels to its story, one is a a deeper, psychological one which we’ll talk about in a second, and one is a consequence of the story’s setting on a Himalayan cliffside.
I talk about Black Narcissus putting you on the edge of your seat, and the imagery of the film mirrors just that in the most spectacular way. By far the most powerful image from the movie is the staggering shot from the place where the convent’s bell is rung looking down a sheer cliff face, the sort that will give you instant vertigo.
With the former palace-turned-convent perched precariously on the edge of that cliff, the tension and uneasiness of the whole situation is on display for all to see from the very start, and it works wonders in bringing a powerfully unsettling atmosphere to the table.
That atmosphere is what makes Black Narcissus a really captivating watch at times, as it allows you to remain on the edge of your seat even as the story unfolds at a more patient pace, with long periods of quiet and very little in the way of high drama.
In fact, those quietest, eeriest moments are certainly the film’s most memorable, really bringing home the all-encompassing intensity of establishing a community on an isolated mountaintop that begins to get to the heads of the nuns at the centre of the job.
Black Narcissus plays out more as a psychological drama than a pure thriller, although I can’t say that I found its intensity on a psychological level quite as striking as it is on a cinematic level. With strong-willed lead Deborah Kerr trying to keep a hold on things as her fellow sisters begin to flail and she faces uncooperative locals, things are always on a knife-edge, but it’s less apparent that the characters’ mental states are quite as dangerously unsettled.
Only in the final act does the story really begin to tap into that psychological drama, and doesn’t manage to do so in quite as elegant or unnerving a way as it created high tension and uneasiness in the earlier stages. It certainly finishes on a thrilling note, but it’s fair to say that Black Narcissus never really gets under your skin in the way that it really wants to.
Overall, there’s no denying that Black Narcissus is a masterful drama, complete with gripping and powerfully unsettling atmosphere, spectacular visuals and production, impressive performances and riveting drama. However, it’s never quite as intense or psychologically distressing as its story sets out to be, which often hurts it as it takes its characters to breaking point. So, that’s why I’m giving the film a 7.4.