Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr) has been called to the head nun to be given some news. Though she is a valued member of the teaching staff in this school, the Sister Superior informs her she will be leaving soon for a place in the Himalayas, a former home to a local Indian leader's harem many moons ago, but more recently used by monks who abandoned it after a few months. Sister Clodagh examines a letter from a British agent (David Farrar) who lives in the region, telling her what to expect, basically a population who will not be entirely malleable to the wishes of an Anglican religious order and a location so isolated that it may take its toll on her and the other nuns she is instructed to take with her. But Sister Clodagh doesn't know the half of it...
One of the most richly atmospheric movies ever made, Black Narcissus was adapted from the Rumer Godden novel of sexual tension and culture clash in Northern India, with the result that it was one of those rare occasions where the book was just as celebrated as the film. The latter was down to the fact that it was produced, written and directed by two of British cinema's most imaginative talents, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, then on a run of creative and popular successes. Some felt this was overheated melodrama, which to be fair it probably was, but the handling was the important thing, and with Jack Cardiff's stunning Technicolor photography this was an experience that seared itself into the memories of all who saw it.
Initially it appears the directors wanted to allow the audience to soak in the ambience of a carefully manufactured location, as it was constructed entirely in a Pinewood studio with miniatures and glass paintings implemented with incredible skill to render the landscape and the nun's retreat where they try to establish a hospital and girl's school. It may be beautiful to look at, but with the subject being nuns under pressure, there was a sense of impending tragedy borne of their repression that they cannot - will not - appreciate their surroundings and give themselves over to sensuality, the sort of thing the Hammer horrors would trade in beginning ten years later. Indeed, the building hysteria of staving off the pleasures of the corporeal world as well as the dangers could with very little alteration make for a chiller that really got under the skin.
It gets alarming enough in its closing stages anyway, but before we reach that there is the melancholy that nuns must exist at all, indicated by the flashbacks to Sister Clodagh's previous life (and the only times we get to see flame-haired Kerr without her wimple) where she could have had a happy and contented existence if the love of her life had not rejected her, leaving her to cope with her shame within the inhibited and controlled world of a religious order; the actress suggests deep reserves of emotion and regret in many closeups on her uneasily attractive composure. The thought that nuns might be finding fulfilment by giving their lives over to God doesn't enter into it, according to this it doesn't matter that their charity is benevolent when the primal power of a far older set of values than Christianity will swamp it, even render it irrelevant, as insignificant as an individual passing through when the mountains remain oblivious.
That troublesome feeling the holy characters endure is brought up in many ways, one being a wild girl pupil played by Jean Simmons becoming mutually attracted to the son of the region's General, played by international Indian star Sabu Dastagir; this lust is barely kept in check thanks to class differences, but does not go unnoticed by Sister Clodagh, whose thoughts are triggered to her lost love and a tension between her and the more worldly Farrar who acts unwittingly like a lightning rod for the passions of the unstable Sister Ruth. She was played by Powell's romantic partner at the time, Kathleen Byron, in such a vivid performance she was expected to go berserk in nearly every film she made afterwards until she settled into character actress old age: the way she is filmed leaves us in no doubt that suppressing Ruth's emotions (and by extension, the emotions of the Brits) is warping her mind, building up to the terrific climax at the top of a cliff hundreds of feet up. It could be silly in other hands, here it is worryingly understandable. Tumultuous music by Brian Easdale.