Hailed as a masterpiece, the 1940s film Black Narcissus starring Deborah Kerr remains one of the most iconic films ever committed to celluloid. This Oscar-winning legacy goes some way in explaining why it’s taken over 70 years for another filmmaker to dare approach the film’s source material, the haunting book of the same name by Rumer Godden.
But it turns out that BBC One’s new limited series Black Narcissus could not have been released at a better time.
This year the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the simple power of touch, an issue at the heart of this dark tale of repressed desire and emotions, as we follow a group of strict missionary nuns who are banned from touching others, even each other. And if ever there was a time to reexamine a story about British colonialism – and rewrite the film’s wrongs of casting Jean Simmons in blackface makeup as Kanchi – it was 2020.
Leading the Black Narcissus cast, Gemma Arterton plays Sister Clodagh, the central role made famous by Kerr. We meet Sister Clodagh in 1930s Darjeeling, India, where she is a rising star in her order. Her proud nature is swiftly picked up on by an acid-tongued Mother Dorothea (played by the late Diana Rigg, in a role that feels like an encore for her Olenna Tyrell). Clodagh’s elation at being named Sister Superior for a new mission in the remote Himalayas is cleverly punctured by Mother Dorothea, who insists that the young, upstart Sister Ruth (Aisling Franciosi) accompany her.
In the 1947 film, Deborah Kerr (Sister Clodagh) and Kathleen Byron (Sister Ruth) were both born the same year, their similar age setting up a more direct competition between the two characters.
The casting of the younger Franciosi subverts Sister Ruth’s relationship with Arterton’s Clodagh. As Mother Dorothea points out, vain Sister Ruth wishes herself important just as Sister Clodagh once did. Ruth initially looks up to Clodagh, who is in turn irritated and unnerved by the insecure younger sister. The mentor-mentee relationship that Ruth desperately craves can never happen – she is a funhouse mirror to Clodagh, reflecting and distorting the latter’s own traits and hidden desires.
Episode one also sets up the beginnings of a rivalry over Mr Dean (Alessandro Nivola), the arrogant land agent. Although Clodagh is initially hostile towards him, there’s a mutual, unspoken attraction. Sister Ruth is also drawn to him, but he seems to see her as a girl, whereas Sister Clodagh is a woman. Again, the casting of Franciosi proves ingenious – she is best known for her role as Katie in The Fall, playing a teenage babysitter obsessed with her married employer.
Other characters outside of the show’s central trio are also introduced in episode one, as Sister Clodagh begins her journey to the mountaintop palace of Mopu, gifted to the order by a local general. She is flanked by four sisters, including Sister Ruth, jolly Sister Briony (Rosie Cavaliero), green-fingered Sister Philippa (Karen Bryson), and sweet-tempered Sister Blanche (Patsy Ferran).
Sister Blanche’s natural ability with children is prized by Sister Clodagh, who requests that Blanche help set up the school at Mopu. “Better honey than vinegar,” Mother Dorothea quotes – and as we soon learn, the proverbial vinegar proves to be none other than Sister Ruth, who cannot stand children.
When the nuns arrive at the palace, they’re shocked by the lush interior, the walls covered with erotic art and (heaven forbid) mirrors. Unbeknownst to them (although one suspects that the sly Mother Dorothea knew), the palace was once a home for a general’s concubines, and nicknamed ‘The House of Women’.
At the palace, the nuns meet the local dignitary, including the general’s handsome nephew Dilip Rai (Sex Education star Chaneil Kular). We also meet a local young woman, Kanchi, played by British-Nepalese newcomer Dipika Kunwar. The two characters don’t meet in episode one, but fans of the original film will remember a connection between the pair.
The final, uncredited character in the series is, of course, the landscape. Unlike the film (shot entirely in the UK), the TV series was partly filmed on location in Jomsom, Nepal, in addition to Pinewood Studios. The very beauty of the mountains feels transgressional for the nuns, as their order encourages looking strictly inwards, never allowing their eyes to rest for too long on anything outside themselves.
In episode one Sister Clodagh valiantly rations her gaze, banging the palace windows firmly shut – but just like the viewer, she seems destined to be overcome by the beauty of her new home.
Black Narcissus continues on Monday (28th December) and Tuesday (29th December) at 9pm on BBC One. While you’re waiting visit our TV Guide to see what’s on tonight, or check out our guide to new TV shows 2020 to find out what’s airing this autumn and beyond.