Friday, 13 January 2012
#21 United Kingdom — Black Narcissus (1947)
Why I chose this: If a recent re-watch of one of my favourite films isn't reason enough for a review, I don't know what is.
I'm a sucker for hand drawn backgrounds in film. They add an otherworldly quality which is impossible to achieve otherwise. Black Narcissus joins this with my love of high-saturation technicolour films to make a film of timeless beauty and originality.
A selection from an order of nuns are sent to a remote Himalayan town to start a convent. They aim to educate the natives and keep them healthy, but find themselves brought to conflict by the exotic surroundings and a handsome agent known as Mr. Dean.
I generally don't talk much about acting in these reviews, mainly because it's an aspect of film which doesn't interest me as much as cinematography or music. In this case, failure to mention the acting would be a crime. Everyone in the film gives a top-rate perform ace. Deborah Kerr plays the uptight and very proper sister superior, Clodagh, who slowly reveals a deep humanity as the film progresses. Kathleen Byron is intense and unforgettable as Sister Ruth, who is deeply affected by the surroundings and begins to go mad. Mr. Dean is played with a concern for the nuns and sense of right, overshadowed by a refined brutishness by David Farrar.
In true Archers style, the film is full of memorable scenes. Clodagh's open talk with Mr. Dean ("I couldn't stop the wind from blowing and the air from being as clear as crystal, and I couldn't hide the mountain.") is one of the best written and acted segments I've seen, and the ending is as tense as any Hitchcock film.
All of these components are brought together by Jack Cardiff's spectacular cinematography. There are many images which will haunt the viewer long after the final reel ends. The colours are as sumptuous as you'll find in any Christopher Doyle film and the composition as good as any from Sven Nykvist.
Although the film is about nuns, it is not overtly religious; the focus is on the themes of the power of nature, nostalgia and temptation rather than faith. Each of those three are very well developed and weave in and out of each other for the picture's duration. The story is constructed in such a way that the themes are intrinsic rather than tacked on, which increases their power and the sense on sincerity which the film gives.
As much of a cliche that it is, there is something for everyone in Black Narcissus. Those to whom scenery porn is the most important element will be more than fulfilled, acting fetishists will be captivated by the cast and story lovers have a thrilling ride to be dragged along on. The style grants the film a certain magic that is matched perhaps only by Marcel Carne's Les Enfants du Paradis. Any cinema lover should see this at least once.
Also recommended from the United Kingdom:
Stanley Kubrick (Any of his films)
Powell & Pressburger (A Matter of Life and Death, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp)
Nicholas Roeg (Walkabout, Don't Look Now)
Carol Reed (The Third Man)
Mike Leigh (Another Year, Naked)
Terry Jones (& Terry Gilliam) (Life of Brian, (The Holy Grail))
Terry Gilliam (Brazil)
Bruce Robinson (Withnail & I)