Take 3: Black Narcissus (1947) Review

For the first Genre Grandeur of 2023, the theme is ‘Movies that take place in Cold weather situations (snow, ice, hail, etc.)’. While I could have selected a Hallmark title, I decided to pick another film instead. As I looked through my recommendations board on Pinterest, I remembered the 1947 movie, Black Narcissus. Suggested by Maddy from Maddy Loves Her Classic Films, this story takes place in the Himalayas, a mountainous region known for colder temperatures and snowy landscapes. Prior to watching Black Narcissus, I had heard this movie was controversial at the time of its release. All I knew about the film was its synopsis and the fact it premiered within the Breen Code era. Is Black Narcissus worth the trek up the mountain? Keep reading my review to find out!

Black Narcissus (1947) poster created by The Archers and General Film Distributors

Things I liked about the film:

The dialogue: In my review of When the Circus Came to Town, I mentioned how the dialogue was surprisingly profound. This was also the case in Black Narcissus, where the dialogue was sometimes profound, even thought-provoking. After Christmas Eve service, the Young General congratulates Sister Clodagh on the birth of Jesus. This statement brings up an excellent point about Christmas. When there is a new baby in a family, the family will be congratulated on their new arrival. So, congratulating Jesus’ birth makes sense, especially given the religious context of the holiday. After Sister Clodagh tells the Young General how the sisters don’t speak of God in a casual sense, Mr. Dean replies how God should be as common as bread. Even though Mr. Dean made this statement while drunk, he did make an interesting point. From the way I interpreted it, it seems like Mr. Dean thinks Christians should live their everyday lives with God present in it.

The set design and scenery: Off the top of my head, I can’t think of many movies taking place in the Himalayas. Therefore, I was excited to see this locale through a cinematic lens. The Himalayas did not disappoint, as the landscape looked so photogenic, it honestly appeared as a piece of art! One example is a shot of the mountains, where the snow caps dissolved in an ombre palette of white to light blue, transforming to a deep blue. Not only were the exterior shots appealing to the eye, the interior shots were interesting to look at as well! My favorite room in the palace was the “blue room”. In this room, the walls are covered in a mural primarily boasting hues of blue, periwinkle, and purple. Pops of green can be found on the mural, presenting the illusion the room has been submerged into the sea. Complimenting the space is a blue, circular chair with yellow, flowered stitching and a crystal chandelier.

The Young General’s wardrobe: Even though the Young General appeared in the film for a limited period of time, I absolutely loved his wardrobe! In fact, his wardrobe stole the show! My favorite outfit was the one he wore during the Christmas service. While attending the service, the Young General’s attire was white with gold details. Because winters in the Himalayas are colder, his outfit was beautifully paired with a fur coat covered in a leopard pattern and puffy white sleeves. Adding a light gold turban, the Young General’s attire was impeccably designed by Hein Heckroth!

Snowy mountain image created by Freepik at freepik.com. <a href=’https://www.freepik.com/free-vector/landscape-background-of-snow-track-and-mountains_968656.htm’>Designed by Freepik</a>. <a href=”https://www.freepik.com/free-photos-vectors/background”>Background vector created by Freepik</a>. Image found at freepik.com.

What I didn’t like about the film:

Few introductions to Himalayan culture: In 1956’s The King and I, Anna, as well as the audience, are introduced to Siamese culture through her interactions with various characters. One notable example is Tuptim’s interpretation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, where her perspective on the text provides an insight into her cultural background. Before watching Black Narcissus, I was hoping to learn more about the people of the Himalayas. Unfortunately, the film’s creative team didn’t take the time to show Himalayan customs, traditions, and beliefs. Yes, the Young General is interested in learning more about Christianity and there is a spiritual leader who makes a handful of appearances in the movie. But these parts of the story were not explored to a satisfying extent.

Little to no explanations: Kanchi is a seventeen-year-old young lady who arrives at the convent. Mr. Dean explains to Sister Clodagh how Kanchi is a “troublemaker” who isn’t wanted by anyone. Was Kanchi truly a “troublemaker” or is she simply misunderstood? Why does it seem like no one wants her around? Why was Kanchi given little to no dialogue in the story? Is she non-verbal or was she so traumatized by something from her past, that she chooses not to speak? This is just one example of how little to no explanations were found in the film. That creative decision didn’t allow the audience to get to know Kanchi and understand the reason behind her choices. Because of how common explanations were omitted, I was confused by the end of the movie.

Relying on a premise instead of a plot: When I reviewed When the Circus Came to Town last December, I talked about how the made-for-tv movie relied more on a premise (the story’s hook) than a plot (what keeps the audience invested in the story). Black Narcissus contains the same flaw. Prior to seeing this film, I thought the first half of the story would show the sisters’ journey up the mountain, with the story’s second half chronicling the creation of the convent. The movie completely omits the journey, going straight to the convent’s creation. For the majority of the story, the sisters are shown going through the motions of keeping their convent afloat. While the sisters’ deal with their own personal issues, there was no overarching conflict that needed to be resolved.

Blue sparkly Christmas tree image created by Macrovector at freepik.com. <a href=”https://www.freepik.com/free-photos-vectors/frame”>Frame vector created by Macrovector – Freepik.com</a>. <a href=’https://www.freepik.com/free-vector/merry-christmas-card_2875396.htm’>Designed by Macrovector</a>. Image found at freepik.com.

My overall impression:

Objectively speaking, Black Narcissus is a competently made film. In fact, I could tell the creative team behind the project cared about what they were making. But subjectively, this is one of the most confusing movies I’ve ever seen. That is because so many parts are the story were given little to no explanations. I didn’t know the 1947 film was based on a novel until I saw the film’s opening credits, so maybe this is a case where the source material does a better job than the adaptation when it comes to explaining things? Black Narcissus is a film that emphasizes style over substance. While there was appealing scenery, set design, and costume designs, the story was missing an overarching conflict. Missed opportunities to learn more about Himalayan culture were in this story as well. With everything I said, I can’t give a strong recommendation for Black Narcissus. Instead, I would suggest checking out movies like 1956’s The King and I and The Nun’s Story.

Overall score: 6 out of 10

Have you seen Black Narcissus? Which movies featuring cold weather situations are your favorites? Please tell me in the comment section!

Have fun at the movies!

Sally Silverscreen

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