Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Film Review: Black Narcissus (1947)

Fig.1 Movie poster (1947)
An adaptation of Rumer Godden's 1939 novel of the same name, Black Narcissus was a film way ahead of its 1947 release date. Directed by British filmmakers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, the movie tells of repressed nuns who move into a disused ex-brothel in the mountains with the intention of creating a school, medical centre and chapel for the local village. Despite their best efforts to resist their urges, one-by-one they realise that the fresh mountain air and the arrival of the suave and barely clothed English agent, Mr Dean are making them doubt their faith and commitments.
Fig.2. Sisters Clodagh and Ruth and Mr Dean, movie still (1947)
One of the most striking features of the film is the production art. The majority of the movie was shot at Pinewood Studios in London, with a few jungle scenes shot in a tropical garden in Kent. The impressive scenery which adds so much to the feel of the film and the sense of isolation, being way up in the mountains is actually achieved through matte paintings (Fig.3). As quoted in Empire Online "No amount of CGI could ever capture the dramatic splendour of the beautiful matte paintings that push a church bell - and the nun's emotions - right to the edge of a deep and deadly ravine." (Empire Online, s.d.)
Fig.3. Matte painting effects added to the footage, movie still (1947)
The film is full of sexual references, the most memorable being when Sister Ruth announces that she is giving up the Order and is discovered in a striking red evening dress, slowly and suggestively applying a slick of red lipstick (Fig.4). Although very subtle, the colour red is used often in the film at evocative points and becomes more common as the nuns' frustrations grow. The pivotal moment is when Sister Ruth emerges at the door of the bell tower, hysteria in her eyes and presented in a backdrop of eerie redness (Fig.5). This is another example of the timelessness of parts of this film, as the image could easily sit well in today's cinematography. In his BFI Screen Online review, Mark Duguid says "Powell and Pressburger's delirious melodrama is one of the most erotic films ever to emerge from British cinema, let alone in the repressed 1940s" (Duguid, s.d.)

Fig.4. Sister Ruth applies her lipstick, movie still (1947)
Fig.5.Sister Ruth emerges after giving up the Order, movie still (1947)
Black Narcissus is among the most highly acclaimed movies of all time, receiving a rare 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes (http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/black_narcissus/). Neil Smith sums it up well in his Total Film review; "...there's so much more to admire here - from the heightened reality conveyed by the Pinewood sets to Jack Cardiff's sumptuous, Oscar-winning Technicolor cinematography." (Smith, s.d.)
Illustration List:
Figure 1. Black Narcissus, (1947) [Poster] At:
(Accessed on 11.11.14)
Figure 2. Sisters Clodagh and Ruth and Mr Dean (1947) [Movie still] At:
(Accessed on 11.11.14)
Figure 3. Matte painting effects added to the footage (1947) [Movie still] At:
(Accessed on 11.11.14)
Figure 4. Sister Ruth applies her lipstick (1947) [Movie still] At:
(Accessed on 11.11.14)
Figure 5. Sister Ruth emerges after giving up the Order (1947) [Movie still] At:
(Accessed on 11.11.14)
Author unknown (s.d.) Empire Online review At:
(Accessed on 11.11.14)
Duguid, M. (s.d.) BFI Screen Online review At:
(Accessed on 11.11.14)
Smith, N. (s.d.) Total Film review At:
(Accessed on 11.11.14)

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