Imagine the hubbub caused by the feature film “Black Narcissus” upon its release in 1947. An erotic British psychological thriller about an order of Anglican nuns who try to establish a school and hospital deep in the Himalayas, what? And there’s a handsome and charming rogue who stirs up feelings of longing in some of the nuns, really?
Starring Deborah Kerr as Sister Clodagh and David Farrar as the dashing Mr. Dean, “Black Narcissus” (which refers to the name of a perfume) was condemned by the Catholic National Legion of Decency, which called it “an affront to religion and religious life.” Nevertheless, “Black Narcissus” was a critical and commercial hit and won Academy Awards for cinematography and art direction.
Now comes the three-part FX limited series “Black Narcissus,” which is based on the best-selling novel by Rumer Godden (as was the 1947 film), and though the material won’t be as shocking or titillating to viewers as it surely was in the mid-20th century, this is a worthy remake which remains faithful to the themes of the original material and is filled with stunningly beautiful visuals, hauntingly effective sequences and deeply moving performances, most notably from Gemma Arterton as Sister Clodagh and Alessandro Nivola as Mr. Dean.
“Black Narcissus” is set in the British-controlled India of 1934. In Darjeeling, the kindly but firm Mother Dorothea (the late, great Diana Rigg) informs the ambitious young Sister Clodagh she’ll be the Sister Superior at a new school and mission in a former palace in Mopu, tucked deep into the Himalayas. In a startling prologue, we’ve already seen hints that some strange and disturbing things have happened in this locale; in fact, a group of German monks abandoned the palace just a year ago, without explanation. Mysterious forces might be at work there, discouraging the presence of proselytizing outsiders.
Director Charlotte Bruus Christensen (who also serves as cinematographer) paints with gorgeous tones in creating a mystical, sometimes beautiful, often haunting tableau, from the cavernous palace to the heavenly mountains to the colorful costumery of the locals, which is in stark contrast to the nuns in their all-white outfits, their heads covered, large crosses swaying from their necks, their faces pinched and nearly expressionless. (They can’t even shake hands, as any and all kind of touching is prohibited.)
Alessandro Nivola’s Mr. Dean, looking and sounding for all the world like an Indiana Jones knockoff, is the general’s representative and all-around go-to man for the sisters, whether it’s remodeling the palace or helping them communicate with the locals, including the children who come daily for tutoring. From the moment Mr. Dean meets Sister Clodagh, there’s a kind of Bogie-Hepburn vibe in their back-and-forth, as he’s amused by her rigid demeanor and delights in getting overly familiar in their conversation, while she feigns indignation at his lack of manners but is clearly feeling some kind of stirring deep within. (As we see in sun-dappled flashback glimpses, before Sister Clodagh became a nun, there was a man — and they were deeply, passionately in love.)
Meanwhile, a few of the other nuns become almost possessed by their environment. Sister Philippa (Karen Bryson), assigned to growing the mission’s garden, is so taken with the beauty and the splendor of her surroundings and so unfamiliar with experiencing anything approaching joy that she is shaken to the core and wants to leave. Sister Ruth (Aisling Franciosi) is haunted by dreams that feel more like visions, lashes out at Sister Clodagh and becomes obsessed with Mr. Dean. Even a visit from Mother Dorothea and Father Roberts (the invaluable Jim Broadbent) does little to still the winds of discontent and trouble swirling about the mission. And there’s a romance brewing the local general’s nephew, Dilip Rai (Chaneil Kular), and a village girl named Kanchi (Dipika Kunwar) that will cause great scandal if discovered.
“Black Narcissus” has much to say about the class system in India, early 20th century patriarchy and the last vestiges of British rule over India, which ended in 1947 but was still the order of the day during the time period of this story. At times it’s an uneven mix of cultural period piece, forbidden romances and horror film, but it will hold your interest over the course of its binge-worthy, three-episode arc, and leave you hopeful for a follow-up, as the stories of Sister Clodagh, Mr. Dean and others are brimming with potential for further adventures.