Not everyone can look good in a wimple. Deborah Kerr managed it and, fortunately, so does Gemma Arterton, who takes on her role in a new version of Black Narcissus (BBC One). Arterton is Sister Clodagh, who assembles a crack team of nuns to open a school in a remote corner of Nepal.
The convent teeters on a cliff-edge, just like the women’s nerves. Everything sets them off. Banging shutters. Rude paintings. A brooding Englishman who dresses like Indiana Jones and is good at woodwork. It’s an odd story, really. Of all the classic films to remake in 2020 (and yes, it was originally a book by Rumer Godden, but it’s the 1947 film that is most familiar), why choose this study of nuns going hysterical in the Himalayas?
All that sexual repression worked well for a film made in the 1940s. Now, it’s probably a bit baffling for modern viewers. But if you’re looking for new drama on terrestrial TV this Christmas, Black Narcissus is the long and the short of it, so for this first episode at least I imagine it pulled in a sizeable audience.
And it was pretty good – lucid storytelling from screenwriter Amanda Coe (Apple Tree Yard, The Trial of Christine Keeler), great acting from a cast headed by Arterton, and atmospheric direction from Charlotte Bruus Christensen, whose previous career as a cinematographer was evident. She made much of the Himalayan landscape – a scene of the nuns trekking single file up to their new home was striking.
Once at the House of Women, as the convent was known during its less pious years, Christensen gave some of the backdrops an almost Technicolor quality in a nod to Powell and Pressburger’s original. The production added flashbacks to Arterton’s pre-wimple days, which didn’t seem particularly necessary, and plenty of shots in which the camera gazed upon her face while she gazed out of the window.
As for the plot: Mother Dorothea – the late Diana Rigg, authoritative in her last television role – has dispatched Sister Clodagh to run the mission at Mopu, a palace gifted to the order by the bumptious local general (Kulvinder Ghir). The palace was once home to a troubled maharani who jumped to her death from the belltower (this is not the drama for you if you suffer from vertigo), and whose ghost may be lingering.
The general’s land agent is the rakish Mr Dean, played by Alessandro Nivola, who may as well have a flashing neon ‘Love Interest’ sign above his head. He predicts that the nuns will have packed up and gone home by the next monsoon.
Sister Clodagh has reluctantly brought along Sister Ruth, played by Aisling Franciosi, who brings the same sullen intensity to the role as she did to her stroppy teen in The Fall. Sister Ruth is fast going mad – whether due to possession by restless spirits, a crush on Mr Dean, a crush on Sister Clodagh or just, I guess, being a woman.
Coe has stated that this adaptation questions the “white colonial gaze” of the film, but I’m not sure that gives the film much credit. Even in 1947, it did a decent job of showing that any attempt to impose Western ideas of “enlightenment” on another culture is unlikely to end well.
The end of episode one left things hanging for viewers unfamiliar with the original – is this going to carry on as a relatively straightforward story, or tip over into craziness? Coe has dubbed it “The Shining with nuns” but there are moments when you have to suppress a laugh – the wild-haired housekeeper in particular lends an Acorn Antiques quality to proceedings.
This version aims for the gothic strangeness of the original but can’t match it, instead falling back on haunted house thrills. The oddness now comes from the premise – a bunch of English nuns stuck up a mountain – rather than the artistic treatment. The drama takes itself seriously, but it’s a more enjoyable watch if we don’t.