Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Black Narcissus Review

Black Narcissus

Black Narcissus is a movie released in 1947. It begins with a young nun, Sister Clodagh which along with Ruth, a sister who suffers from her health, are the main characters that we follow. Sister Clodagh is at the start appointed leader of a small covenant along with other sisters to establish a new monastery in the Himalayas with the purpose to bring structure, religion and order to the inhabitants of the neighbouring area. The house the sisters moved into was infamous as a former house of ill repute. “Mopu was once called “The House of Women,” as it was originally built for a local ruler to keep his private harem, and the many erotic paintings that adorn the aged walls are testament to the carnal pleasures that once took place there.”  (Kendrick, s.d) This location plays a key role in the sisters decent into sin. During the course of the movie the sister’s faith is shaken and in some cases broken. Finally ending in tragedy in the form of a death of one of the main characters at the climax of the movie.

 At the beginning of the movie the colours are held in mostly calm blue tones which illustrates calmness, belief, sincerity and innocence of the untainted and faithful cast of sisters. As the movie progresses the sisters begin to indulge into the baser desires for a more sinful lifestyle, and with it the colours used in the sets of the movie begin to take on a more reddish hue reflecting perhaps the emotional state of the sisters. The room in the middle of the monastery is held in blue but is the first room where a local girl dances in a sensual way, so perhaps the calmness of the room is broken by that action as the twist takes its course from then on. Also as the movie progresses the mountains, once in white bluish tones begin to show orange streaks, maybe also used to demonstrate the change in atmosphere. This movie also employs the use of colour on its sets to reflect the time of year and season with colder bluish colours for the winter season and brighter colours such as pink to reflect the arrival of spring.

Figure 1. Ruth’s Desire (c1947)

 The movie is filmed in London, but based in the Himalayas so most scenes have a matt painting to show the surroundings of the monastery.  The creators used the freedom of creating whatever scene they wanted to their advantage “Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, shot their classic dark-comic melodrama mostly on British studio sets, and the film’s very falseness—those matte-painting vanishing perspectives and cinematographer Jack Cardiff’s harshly exaggerated lighting cues—creates a psychologically charged space in which an ungodly tragedy can unfold.”  (Uhlich, 2012:2).

Figure 2. St. Faithful (c1947)

 As the sets are paintings and not of real world, they give the impression that they are supposed to look very realistic and to show the extremeness of the situation the sisters are currently in. The set of the monastery/palace also goes against the sister’s nature as inside are paintings and wallpapers depicting nude women and lustful scenes in every room which leads to sinful desires and memories and perhaps illustrates to the viewer the stark differences in the lifestyle of the previous inhabitants to the new ones. These props are probably placed to stir up old memories and thoughts of more exciting lives for the sisters.

 Props in this movie are used as metaphors, for example the house is full of bird cages which might symbolise the captured feeling that the nuns may be experiencing. Birds are meant to fly free and it is almost a tragedy that although they have wings and the ability to go whether they feel fit they are trapped in a very small space, a tiny viewpoint of the world they could experience which is an true metaphor for how some of the sisters are feeling when looking back at their previous lifestyles and imagining the lives they could experience instead.

Makeup and colour are also used on the actors heavily to describe their emotional state and perhaps to some extent their corruption in the eyes of the Christian faith. Ruth for example abandons her faith for her own personal desires and immediately changes costume and make up and reflects perhaps a demonic like spiritual state while the other sisters are never seen in anything but their white bluish robes and natural faces, which might illustrate their innocence and unwavering commitment. As Ruth dies she looks like a much darker version of herself with reds and the sharper outlines of her features emphasised much more with make-up then she was loyal to her faith. “Particularly affected is Sister Ruth - a magnificent performance from Kathleen Byron - who conceives an erotomaniacal obsession for Dean, and her final appearance in the film, gaunt and wraithlike, is still one of the scariest moments in British cinema history.” (Bradshaw, 2005:2)

Figure 3. Black Narcissus Horror (c1947)

Over all the movie makes impressive use of colour, props and scenery to emphasise the emotional state of the scenes, actors and situations. A lot of props are used as metaphors to bring home the underlying feelings of the characters.


Uhlich, Keith. (2012) Black Narcissus. http://www.timeout.com/us/film/black-narcissus-3 (accessed on 11/11/2014)
Bradshaw, Peter. (2005) Black Narcissus. http://www.theguardian.com/theguardian/2005/aug/05/3 (accessed on 11/11/2014)
Kendrick, James. (s.d) Black Narcissus http://www.qnetwork.com/index.php?page=review&id=2412 (accessed on 11/11/2014)

Illustration List:

Figure 1: Powell, M. and Pressburger, E. (1947) Ruth’s Desire [Still of Ruth] Available from: http://screeningfilm.com/events/black-narcissus/ (accessed on 11/11/2014)
Figure 2: Powell, M. and Pressburger, E. (1947) St. Faithful [Still of the Monastery] Available from: http://thefilmemporium.blogspot.co.uk/2011/10/classic-throwback-black-narcissus.html (accessed on 11/11/2014)
Figure 3: Powell, M. and Pressburger, E. (1947) Black Narcissus Horror [Still of Ruth] Available from: http://filmfanatic.org/reviews/?p=19694 (accessed on 11/11/2014)


  1. Woo, you got that up fast, good job! Great point about the makeup. (The detail they went into making Ruth wear even red eyeliner was hilarious.)

  2. :D well done, Mailin - *happy tutor face* ! And this is a thoughtful, insightful and engaging review.

  3. Very well written!! :D And much better with the inclusion of the images...
    Just one (tiny) niggle... make sure your bibliography is arranged alphabetically, so Bradshaw, Kendrick, Uhlich.