The BBC follows its critically successful adaptation of Bram Stokers’ Dracula in the days after Christmas 2019 with an ambitious new version of Black Narcissus. Gareth Smith takes a look for Wales Arts Review.
Rumer Godden’s novel Black Narcissus (1939) has long been eclipsed by the award-winning film adaptation in 1947, directed by Michael Powell with a script by his long-time creative partner Emeric Pressburger. For viewers unfamiliar with either, the BBC’s new version will likely seem a vaguely spooky period drama with capable performances from familiar faces. For those acquainted with the source text or its first adaptation, however, it is impossible not to continually question what exactly this retelling can offer.
The novel focuses on a group of nuns, headed by Sister Clodagh, who open a convent on a remote mountain top in the Himalayas. The atmosphere of their new home, a former palace for a harem, produces a strange effect on the Sisters, who find themselves both disorientated and seduced by it. The 1947 film is best remembered for its cinematography, expertly using matte paintings to create vivid scenery, and for its effective exploration of repressed sexuality, religious mania and existential angst. It is also a film with several glaring problematic elements, including the casting of white actors to play Asian characters.
The BBCs version offers much of the same. The matte paintings are replaced by scenic location footage, the casting is representative and the history of the harem is depicted in greater detail, but otherwise the story is faithful to the central plotlines of Sister Clodagh’s (Gemma Arterton) burgeoning attraction to the palace’s agent Mr Dean (Alessandro Nivola) and the emotional breakdown of Sister Ruth (Aisling Franciosi). The foreign climate of the Himalayas provides a similar thematic function as the original film, offering an exotic wildness to tempt the characters from their Christian path. Opportunities to interrogate the colonial gaze and the orientalism imbued in the narrative are lost. The appearance of a ghostly apparition from the harem, whose arrival signals Sister Ruth’s mental decline, seems to replicate, rather than challenge, the idea that the locals function primarily as symbols within the narratives of Western protagonists.
It is often the moments in which Black Narcissus moves away from the familiarity of the first film that are the most interesting, particularly a scene in which the nuns accidentally glimpse themselves in a mirror for the first time since taking holy orders. Literally made to face that which they sought to deny, this symbolic act demonstrates that the repressed must inevitably return. Later in the episode, Sister Clodagh dreams of her former lover; he hands her a mirror so that she is forced to confront the past life that she is desperately trying to escape. Such moments get to the very centre of the story’s enduring appeal and are promising indicators for the remaining two parts of the series.
Based on the first episode, this new version of Black Narcissus is a competent adaptation which nonetheless remains haunted by its famous predecessor. It offers the same fascinating insights into race, sexuality and power that the original story did, but does not develop or challenge them in the manner that might be expected of a version produced in 2020.
Black Narcissus continues on BBC One and is available for catch-up on the BBC iPlayer.