Sisters on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown

Nuns go nuts in Nepal in FX’s ‘Black Narcissus’

Set in Nepal, in the year 1934, the recent FX/BBC mini-series ‘Black Narcissus’  retells a story that won Oscars for Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s 1947 film adaptation of Rumer Godden’s novel. The new Black Narcissus is a compelling watch, but could have used a little more discipline. For a show about the charism of religious sisters, and their struggle to fulfill that, it’s a little short on the revelatory, though it tries hard to get there.

Invited by a local potentate called The General (Kulvinder Ghir), a group of Catholic sisters ride their horses up the mountains to establish a school in what was formerly the harem-palace of The General’s late father. They know already that some German monks had the year before attempted to do the same, only to depart in failure.  Yet Sister Superior Clodagh (Gemma Arterton) is eager to prove her commitment to her vocation. Each of the other sisters carries her own burden. Most significantly, Sister Ruth (Aisling Franciosi) is prey not only to ambitions that make her subordination to Clodagh rankle, but also earthly cravings that the poorly-covered graphically sexual wall-paintings in their convent, the former House of Women, bring to a simmer.

These cravings find their object in Mr. Dean (Alessandro Nivola), The General’s go-between with the Order of The Servants of Mary. A faithless Anglo expatriate, Mr. Dean comes off a little bit like a dissolute Indiana Jones, prone to drink and to dalliances with the native girls, but sporting a handsome hat and riding boots to die for. He’s also nothing if not competent, as good at carpentry as he is at translation, and also not a bad singer.

As much as he attracts Sister Ruth, he seems to repel Sister Clodagh, who finds him arrogant and borderline blasphemous, and speaks harshly to him every chance she gets. Yet after most scenes where Clodagh castigates Dean for this or that impropriety (such as his showing up drunk for midnight Christmas services), we see her sitting at the window of her office room, gazing out the window at the mountains and the clouds. And this reverie segues into flashbacks of Clodagh kissing a young man, undressing with him, and more. The mountains and the sky and, perhaps, Mr. Dean, have broken the lock she had set upon her memories. And as the months wear on through the winter, her face gets thinner and thinner, and her cheeks take on an unhealthy yellowish tinge.

The flashbacks may be an easy way for the show to convey the moral conflict Sister Clodagh undergoes, but they are at least coherent and believable. But unless the creators aim for us to take Black Narcissus as a ghost story, the visions Sister Ruth experiences don’t make much sense. Over and over, as she wanders about the palace-cum-convent, she sees the long-gone women of the harem around her, in particular the doomed Princess Srimati (Gianni Gonsalves). Her keening after Mr. Dean, and her antipathy toward Sister Clodagh, grow with each apparition. You might think that her seeing the Princess’s ultimately horrible fate would give her pause, but we’re to take it that the scenes of passion she witnesses, after the fact, would suffice to get her all hot and bothered—and not quite sane.

Black Narcissus
BLACK NARCISSUS — Episode 3 — Pictured: Gina McKee as Sister Adela, Rosie Cavaliero as Sister Briony, Aisling Franciosi as Sister Ruth, Gemma Arterton as Sister Clodagh, Patsy Ferran as Sister Blanche. CR: Miya Mizuno/FX

It’s here, really, that Black Narcissus doesn’t quite trust itself. Perhaps its director (Charlotte Bruus Christensen) and writer (Amanda Coe) thought that the recollections of the one sister and the apparitions of the other made for a good narrative parallel. But without an explanation as to how it is that Sister Ruth alone is suffering a literal haunting, while the other sisters are just having a difficult time in their stark new environment, we’re left with a flimsy device and a lot of shots of Sister Ruth staring around her with malevolent, bugging eyes.

Even so, there’s a lot of talent on display among the actors. Both Gemma Arterton as Sister Clodagh and Aisling Franciosi as Sister Ruth do fantastic work conveying their gradual decay, while Karen Bryson as Sister Philippa and Patsy Ferran as Sister Blanche demonstrate how even the most cheerful and devoted of them can succumb to an internal desolation that mirrors what they see around them. There’s a touch of orientalism in the show’s depiction of its Nepalese characters, what with housekeeper Angu Ayah (Nila Aalia) encouraging Ruth in her visionary tendencies, and The General’s nephew Dilip Rai (Chaneil Kular) wanting to supplement his education at the convent school with dalliances with the sisters’ ward Kanchi (Dipika Kunwar). They all play their parts very well, but the question is whether they’re parts worth playing.

Also notable: the show features the final role of Dame Diana Rigg (1938—2020), who the show more or less wastes as a talking-head Mother Superior in a handful of scenes. But she comports herself impeccably.

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G.L. Ford

G. L. Ford lives and works in Victoria, Texas. He is the author of Sans, a book of poems (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2017). He edited the 6x6 poetry periodical from 2000 to 2017, and formerly wrote a column for the free paper New York Nights.

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