A stunner from one of the great collaborative teams in the history of cinema and an anomaly in British film of the 1940s. Powell and Pressburger continued their string of daring, idiosyncratic films (LIFE AND DEATH OF COLONEL BLIMP, A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH, THE RED SHOES) with this
full-blown melodrama concerning a group of Anglican nuns who attempt to establish a school and hospital at an ancient ruler's castle-cum-bordello high in the Himalayas.
Kerr is highly effective as the young, ambitious Sister Clodagh, given her first taste of authority but bedeviled by the climate, the natives, the cynical but sexy British government agent Mr. Dean (Farrar) and her own and her colleagues' emotional weaknesses. Indian-born juvenile actor Sabu, in
his last major role, plays a rich, bejeweled young general (who wears Black Narcissus perfume) bewitched by a seductive native girl (Simmons, in an odd but highly effective bit of casting). The turbulent chain of events reaches its climax when Sister Ruth (Byron, superb in a performance which
should have insured her career) becomes unhinged over her desires for Mr. Dean and her jealousy of Sister Clodagh.
An odd, unsettling film which suggests the dangers of both emotional restraint and unchecked passion, BLACK NARCISSUS is also one of the most visually beautiful films ever made in color. The acting of the leads excels, and they are splendidly abetted by Robson, Furst, and Laird as the other nuns
and by Knight and Hallatt as, respectively, a paternal ruler and a hilariously cynical housekeeper.
Full of hysteria (especially at the cathartic climax, where Byron's makeup antedates that of THE EXORCIST) and continuing Powell and Pressburger's implicit critique of British stiff-upper-lip attitudes, BLACK NARCISSUS was ahead of its time, prefiguring the later melodramas of everyone from Sirk
to Fassbinder to Ken Russell. The scenes where Sister Clodagh recalls her happy, romantic days before entering the convent were at first cut by censors. The film deservedly won the Oscars for color cinematography and art direction.
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