Black Narcissus | Fresh Takes

Fresh takes and film reviews from new voices in film.

Ammir, Oscar & Rose

19 Jan 24

Fresh Takes is a space for the latest generation of film lovers to share their views and opinions on some of the great films we are showing at Picturehouse cinemas. 

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Here are some Fresh Takes on Black Narcissus, a delirious and erotic British psychological melodrama dealing with themes of faith and desire. Written, produced, and directed by iconic duo Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger and starring Deborah Kerr, it follows a group of missionary nuns attempting to open a convent in the foothills of the Himalayas and was released only a few months before India achieved independence from Britain in August 1947..

This film is showing as part of our Powell & Pressburger season, a celebration of the UK's most prodigious pair of filmmakers and their far-reaching, utterly sublime cinematic visions. Find out more and book tickets at

Oscar McFie Lyons, 24

Oscar is an aspiring journalist with a keen interest in film and media criticism. You can find his work in assorted journals affiliated with University College London, where he is currently enrolled on a postgraduate course in International Relations.

Oscar says...

The possibilities afforded by film as a visual medium are sometimes striking. This is readily apparent in British filmmakers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's sensuous drama Black Narcissus. The rising slopes of the Himalayas fulfil important dramatic impulses. Breathtaking yet severe all at once, they capture humans at their most remote – and therefore, most intimate. So it is that, with admirable awareness, together they should craft a fable of intriguing contrasts.

Adapted from Rumer Godden's curious novel, Black Narcissus transports us to India in the twilight of the British Raj. Sister Clodagh, steadfastly portrayed by Deborah Kerr, heads a handful of Anglican sisters as they attempt to establish a school and hospital at Mopu. The trappings of a stoic drama rooted in theological discourse are deftly subverted by the wild imaginings of one disturbed Sister Ruth. Marking one among many fruitful partnerships with Powell and Pressburger, Kathleen Byron displays fearsome eroticism, exquisitely framed against the cautious restraint of her peers.

Yet the effective use of Technicolour elevates this film to breathtaking effect. While each sister carries their distinct personality and interests, together they are united in their need to endure the trappings of the mountains' spectacular beauty. The fact that each tableau is itself a work of genuine art – credited to painter Walter Percy Day – only encourages further parallels to be drawn. We as viewers are similarly transfixed by our surroundings, rendered similarly incapable of effectively anticipating our emotions.

Ammir, 25

Ammir is a student at The University of Edinburgh, where he started The Fleshmarket Film Society.

Ammir says...

"There's something in the air that makes everything seem...exaggerated."

High in the Himalayas, a group of nuns dwell at such altitudes they seem to touch the heavens. Yet, this is a cinematic exaggeration too; the film, shot entirely in Britain, uses matte paintings to create its stunning, solitary landscapes.

Being distant from the 1940s, I cannot fully grasp the film's original intent or how it was perceived then. Evaluating it with a contemporary lens might be unjust. Perhaps its racial stereotypes, exaggerated for effect, aim to highlight the absurdity of such notions. Reality itself is an oddity: Britons journey to the far reaches of the globe, promoting a religion that has strayed far from its Middle Eastern origins, both theologically and linguistically.

In this foreign environment, the nuns confront ghosts and their own suppressed desires. Their coping mechanisms vary: one retreats further into repression, another labours until her hands blister, and one – the most openly prejudiced, the most disturbed by her phantoms and the clear mountain air – transforms.

Eroticism permeates every shot of this film. The composition is breathtaking, conveying the isolation, frustration, and desires felt by the convent. The film's climax juxtaposes opposites: Hindu paintings versus the cross, and grey Anglican habits against a sultry red dress.

By the end, it leaves memorable quotes and haunting images of a non-existent world. Was it a critique of Christianity or organised religion? Was it racist, or a commentary on the absurdity of racism? You must watch it yourself to decide.

Rose Saville, 20

Rose is a third-year Linguistics and English Language student at the University of Edinburgh who is passionate about art and design in cinema.

Rose says...

Despite being over 70 years old, Black Narcissus and its depictions of women and their interactions with each other is not far from many modern dramas and romances – ones that find women endlessly fighting against each other for male attention, and ultimately written off as 'mad'.

The film is a dark, delirious look at female sexuality and repression, telling the story of a small convent of nuns in an old palace atop a mountain in the Himalayas. Haunted by the building's previous use as a 'house of women', they navigate their new surroundings.

The beautiful, ornate set design of the palace interior is a particular highlight, as well as the layered soundtrack which adds to the feeling of unease. Although it is hard at times to look past the dated, racist portrayal of the native people in the film, Black Narcissus's portrayal of repressed female desire, and how it leads to tension and conflict, is a theme that's still relevant to many stories today.

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