FX’s ‘Black Narcissus’ Expands a Classic Into a Multi-Episode Melodrama Full of Color and Bombast
FX jumps into the revival bandwagon with “Black Narcissus.” It is one of those TV productions that has given itself the immense task of following in the footsteps of an undisputed classic. It would be intriguing to find out just how many of its audience members have actually read the 1939 novel by Rumer Godden, but you can be sure more than a few are familiar with the 1947 film adaptation by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburge, which starred the immortal Deborah Kerr. It’s a very tricky act to follow. The Powell-Pressburger film is today more adored for its visual lushness and score than for its melodramatic story, which at the time was quite an intense ride in its psychological tension involving nuns stuck in the Himalayas.
Like the book and film, this three-part miniseries takes place in 1934 as the British still lord over India. Sister Clodagh (Gemma Arterton) is assigned by her convent to lead a mission in Mopu, Himalayas, where a powerful general, Toda Rai (Kulvinder Ghir), has donated a lavish palace to the Sisters of St. Faith. Rai hopes by turning the spot into a place of education and spiritual teachings, it can be rid of its stain as a former “House of Women.” Clodagh is joined by Sister Briony (Rosie Cavaliero), Sister Blanche (Patsy Ferran), and the impressionable Sister Ruth (Aisling Franciosi). In Mopu the Sisters meet the general’s agent, Mr. Dean (Alessandro Nivola), who barely hides his disdain for the church. From the start work in the high altitude palace, which overlooks an immense valley, is extremely difficult. The elements take some getting used to, the locals are paid to attend the mission’s programs and when a fresh, young General Dilip Rai (Chaneil Kular) arrives, the place turns into a swirl of repressed passion, memories and brewing conflict.
Fans of the original movie will be most interested in how this new version pairs up visually. Jack Cardiff’s cinematography for the 1947 production won an Oscar and is the defining element of that movie. The shot of Kerr standing at the edge of a great mountain, looking down at an endless void below, is one of the great images of ‘40s cinema. Director Charlotte Bruus Christensen and her team mount a handsome enough version in this FX-BBC collaboration, re-creating the famous Kerr shot and bathing a lot of the imagery in CGI twilight. It is a pleasant limited series to just gaze at for its period details and Himalaya shots. Gone are also some of the Orientalist trappings of the movie, here real Indians and Asians are cast and the dialogue is cleaned of the typical, stereotype-heavy phrases from 70 years ago.
Yet despite being nice to look at, “Black Narcissus” eventually suffers from the same question that plagued Netflix’s recent re-do of “Rebecca,” why do we need it? Or to be more precise, why do we need three hours for what worked so well in an hour and thirty minutes the first time? As with the new “Rebecca,” Christensen attempts to make this new “Black Narcissus” feel fresh by ramping up the bombast and melodrama. While the original movie was a rich slow burner where reactions and tones of voices hinted at the brewing conflicts between characters (especially Clodagh and Mr. Dean), the FX version opens with screams and death. The first scene is of a distressed Indian girl, Srimati (Gianni Gonsalves), General Rai’s sister, running to the edge of the palace’s hill before taking a dive. Already the potential secrets of the plot are ruined, because a running narrative in the series is how Mopu is haunted by the memory of whatever it is that happened to Srimati.
This is also the kind of adaptation that takes the term “haunted” a bit too literally. The moment the nuns arrive there’s no sense of them settling in or getting to know the local culture. Sister Ruth immediately begins to see hallucinations or apparitions of Srimati and the courtesans who once inhabited the palace. Why? How? This is not a story about actual ghosts, but about the psychological tension of repression. Not only are the Sisters in a land completely foreign to them, the presence of men like Mr. Dean with his boldness is an affront to their vows of chastity. In the film this is handled the only way it could be handled in 1947, with subtlety and the dance of dialogue between people who have to speak in code. One brilliant touch in the movie was how David Farrar as Mr. Dean, always wore shorts exposing his fit legs, creating obvious sexual tension with Kerr’s disciplined Sister Clodagh. Alessandro Nivola is either too snarky or too eager. Gemma Arterton has no sense of a devoted woman haunted by her past life maintaining control over her emotions. Instead she looks like a deer caught in the headlight for most of the series. The worst is Aisling Franciosi’s Sister Ruth, who runs and screams for nearly the whole show, first over the apparitions then because she wants Mr. Dean, who unfortunately for her, has an obvious thing for Sister Clodagh. Do not worry dear fans. We still get the story’s final, melodramatic climax by the palace’s giant bell. The repression of desire in a lonesome spot turns into acting pyrotechnics in this version.
You can sense the filmmakers trying to figure out how to keep such a bare story going for all three chapters. Sister Clodagh’s flashbacks are pumped up to be much more dramatic than in the movie, and now include skinny dipping in her pre-nun days. Moments of quiet sadness, like a baby becoming ill, are pushed into rainy nights with thunder territory here. These moments at least explore in more detail the struggles of having to establish a convent high above in the Himalayas, with more references thrown in for how such an elevation also causes breathing issues. But the truly intense swirl of emotions is lost. The point of this story is that the Sisters and the men, including Gilip Rai, who again falls for the beautiful orphan Kanchi (Dipika Kunwar), are stuck in a game of looking but not touching. The original movie built tension because it knew it couldn’t openly talk about sex, this version acts as if it can.
By the final credits what we get out of “Black Narcissus” is another good-looking show. Sure the mountains look suspiciously digital, but much of it is so well-framed one hopes to see more work from this director on an original basis. In this era of prestige television, this is an odd lesson in how not every book and movie deemed a classic needs to be stretched out into multiple episodes. There is a reason why nobody else truly bothered to try and remake this tale in about seven decades. And in an era where all desire and lust is out in the open and we can swipe for new partners, telling a story of forbidden wants in 1934 might work better with more of a whisper than a roar.
“Black Narcissus” premeires Nov. 23 on FX and begins streaming Nov. 24 on Hulu.