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Friday, 8 June 2012

Classic Film Review: Black Narcissus (1947)

Black Narcissus tells the story of a group of nuns dispatched to run a new convent and school high up in the Himalayas, led by Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr). The old palace they have been given for the purpose is perpetually windy, an attribute that adds to the tension in the film and is never neglected for a moment. In fact, the sheer love and detail that went into the setting and staging make it a film to remember. Although it was all created at Pinewood Studios, the film has an epic feeling about it, colourful and vibrant with the kinks barely noticeable.

Sister Clodagh faces many tribulations in her post but the worst threat comes from within - Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron) develops a crush on local British agent Mr Dean (David Farrar) and becomes jealous of his difficult relationship with Sister Clodagh. This eventually leads to her mental instability taking hold and provides the climax to the film which takes place, rather fittingly, at the bell atop the cliff. Byron makes a thoroughly convincing villain and, although some early scenes seem over-the-top, her final descent into madness is nothing less than terrifying. Equally, the rest of the nuns have their small parts to play as they adjust to their surroundings, my favourite being Judith Furse as Sister Briony. The most intriguing cast member is probably Jean Simmons as local girl Kanchi who absconds with the general's son. It's an entirely silent part, requiring some skill in body language and manipulation of others without ever uttering a word. Having been distinctly unimpressed by Simmons in other roles, I may have come to appreciate her talent as Kanchi.

This film is rightly considered a classic. Everything from the cast to the atmospheric palace to the surrounding area is beautifully arranged. The bell that provides the backdrop for the finale becomes a running motif, as does the wind. The final scene of rain drops falling and then intensifying may be one of the most memorable finales in film history. It's so subtle yet poignant as the nuns disappear into the distance. Definitely one I'd recommend for those who haven't seen it and are interested in tense pieces of cinema.

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