‘Black Narcissus’ Review: Nuns, Mountains, High Passion

The title “Black Narcissus” has the sound of a hothouse flower — a dark bloom luring you to an uncertain fate — and the story, as set out by Rumer Godden in her 1939 novel, is indeed exotic, in both the traditional and the pejorative modern senses. Early in the 20th century, five British nuns are sent into the Himalayas to establish a school, hospital and convent in a decrepit mansion perched on a cliff. Exposure to the dramatic landscape and to the down-to-earth locals unhinges them, in different ways and to various degrees, and the project ends in tragedy. If “Heart of Darkness” had a much more genteel cousin, it would be “Black Narcissus.”

Godden’s novel has its orientalist and melodramatic elements, but it’s also marked by the subtle psychology of its portrayals of the nuns and its lyrical evocations of India, where Godden lived as a girl. It’s a sharp and levelheaded book — Black Narcissus turns out to be a cologne that a wealthy Indian character orders in from London — that would be a footnote in literary history if it hadn’t been turned into an effectively campy and lushly pictorial film in 1947 by the British directing team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, who went all in on the exoticism and gleefully pumped up the story’s sexual undertones.

The enduring critical esteem enjoyed by the film — slightly mystifying to me, but enthusiastically supported by the likes of Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola — is probably the reason we now have a new “Black Narcissus,” a three-part mini-series showing in its entirety Monday on FX. (It was produced in Britain by FX and the BBC.)

This television version walks a fine line between book and film, keeping the film’s crowd-pleasing emphasis on the titillating aspects of the plot (depicted in a more restrained, “Masterpiece Theater” style) but incorporating more of the book’s practical business about the realities of establishing a convent in a remote Indian outpost. Unlike the film, it inserts actual Himalayan locations and casts Indian actors in all the Indian roles (though they remain secondary to the interloping British characters).

Written by Amanda Coe and directed by Charlotte Bruus Christensen, the mini-series is a meticulous production, handsome, literate and well acted — as period literary adaptations go, it’s a good read. Gemma Arterton is excellent as Sister Clodagh, the group’s prideful leader, and she’s matched by Aisling Franciosi as Sister Ruth, the erratic nun gradually pushed over the edge by paranoia and by her lust for the rakish expat Mr. Dean (Alessandro Nivola). Rosie Cavaliero, one of British TV’s most reliable supporting performers (“Unforgotten,” “Gentleman Jack”), adds warmth and humor as the practical Sister Briony.

As easy as this “Black Narcissus” is to watch, however, you may find yourself wondering why, exactly, you’re watching a show about a bunch of nuns in the mountains in 1914. Telling the tale this coherently — Coe and Christensen have gone to a lot of trouble in terms of logical progression and cleverly incorporating the book’s themes — has the effect of exposing the plot contrivances that the emotional texture and psychological acuity of Godden’s book glossed over.

A forbidden romance between highborn and lowborn Indians, and a revolt among the villagers when a medical intervention is unsuccessful, are negligible subplots. We’re left with the extremely repressed triangle of Clodagh, Ruth and Mr. Dean and its histrionically morbid consequences. But the mini-series isn’t willing to jump off the cliff with the same abandon that Powell and Pressburger were.

That said, there’s at least one very good reason to tune in to “Black Narcissus”: It includes what is reportedly the last television role of the sublime Diana Rigg, who died in September. She’s barely there, making a couple of brief appearances as the nuns’ mother superior back in Calcutta, but she’s as tough and vivid as ever. She would have been as perfect for Clodagh as she was for just about everything else.

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