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The true pride of “Black Narcissus” is in its performances

Black Narcissus

FX and BBC’s adaptation of Rumer Godden’s 1939 novel is a well-acted and handsomely mounted, if baggy, miniseries.

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“This house has never been good.” These words, said to Sister Clodagh (Gemma Arterton) by General Toda Rai (Kulvinder Ghir) upon the former’s arrival to the Palace of Mopu, are meant to be a reassurance. The palace, formerly home to the general’s father’s concubines, has been given to Clodagh and her fellow sisters for use as a convent and school. What Toda Rai is that he believes the sisters will make something better here, and Clodagh wants to believe that too.

Written by Amanda Coe and directed by Charlotte Bruus Christensen, Black Narcissus is based on Rumer Godden’s 1939 novel, which was previously adapted into the 1947 feature film. Similar in story and plot, FX and the BBC’s adaptation tells the story of five nuns sent into the Himalayas to establish the Convent of St. Faith. Here, they’re to use their skills to make a good and useful place for the locals. Despite the misgivings of Mother Superior Dorothea (the late Diana Rigg, to whom the miniseries is dedicated), Sister Clodagh is chosen to lead the new house. Mother Dorothea thinks Clodagh is too sure of herself for true leadership. Pride, after all, is a sin.

Handpicked by Mother Dorothea, Clodagh’s house consists of Sister Briony (Rosie Cavaliero), the medic and second-in-command; Sister Blanche (Patsy Ferran), a sweet teacher who loves children; and Sister Philippa (Karen Bryson), the gardener. The final member of the group, to Clodagh’s dismay, is Sister Ruth (Aisling Franciosi), a young nun who will be in charge of the convent’s lace school. Ruth is one of those people who has to be a part of it all if only to make herself vital by default, her need for love and importance ruling her decisions.

The cliffside palace has been abandoned for decades following the suicide of the General’s sister Srimati Rai (Gianni Gonsalves). Srimati haunts Mopu’s halls as a phantom of memory, her rooms maintained by palace caretaker Angu Ayah (Nila Aalia), who also leaves bowls of milk out for Srimati’s ghost. Srimati is a more tangible sort of phantom for Sister Ruth, who conjures the spirit as a sort of sister-in-longing. There’s no real evidence that Ruth is seeing a ghost, but Srimati’s tragic love story and death certainly provide Ruth with an abundance of fodder for her internal battles.

Clodagh and Ruth are the roles to play here, and Arterton and Franciosi embody them beautifully.

The sisters are aided in their work by Mr. Dean (Alessandro Nivola), the general’s agent who has little time for the religious aspects of the convent’s lives. (His complete annoyance when he visits on a mandatory day of silence is a wonderful detail.) Dean clashes immediately with Clodagh, though it’s clear they’re also drawn to each other. Ruth is instantly taken with Dean, but her infatuation takes a dark turn, signaling a dark few months ahead.

Clodagh and Ruth are the roles to play here, and Arterton and Franciosi embody them beautifully. Franciosi’s face is a haunt, staring with condemnation and jealousy and lust. She’s a dark force of unfocused and frustrated yearnings. Arterton plays Clodagh as a thinly veiled collection of nerve endings, all fear, anger, and disappointment. She wants so badly to be good, but her pride in her abilities is increasingly overwhelmed by the knowledge that some things are outside of our control. The sisters frequently remind each other to leave things to God, but they aren’t sure how to deal with what that means.

Black Narcissus stumbles whenever it leaves the central focus of the sisters. A subplot about the forbidden love between the General’s nephew Dilip Rai (Chaneil Kular) and Kanchi (Dipika Kunwar), an orphan girl the sisters take in, though treated with more shy sweetness than one might expect, ultimately comes to nothing. The same goes for the late addition of Sister Adela (Gina McKee) and a visit from Father Roberts (Jim Broadbent) who show up once things have started to curdle. They largely just cluck their tongues disapprovingly at Clodagh without having any real influence on the tale’s inevitable ending.

Despite this, it works well enough. The title comes from the perfume that Dilip Rai wears, a symbol of sensual excess in a cloistered world, seductive and heady and fleeting. Black Narcissus is a powerful story about culture shock and spiritual misgivings, about the power of memory and longing, and the dangers of frustration—sexual, mental, emotional, and otherwise.

All three episodes of Black Narcissus premiere on FX tonight, Monday, November 23rd.

Black Narcissus Trailer:

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Megan Sunday

Megan Sunday is a writer, archivist, and cohost of Let’s Get Weirding: A Dune Podcast. She lives in the DC area with her family and her growing collection of horror paperbacks.