By Will Barber Taylor
Mopu, Himalayas, 1934. A remote clifftop palace once known as the ‘House of Women’ holds many dark secrets. When the young nuns of St. Faith attempt to establish a mission there, its haunting mysteries awaken forbidden desires that seem destined to repeat a terrible tragedy. During the latter years of British rule in India, ambitious young nun Sister Clodagh (Gemma Arterton) heads a mission to a remote part of the Himalayas.
The palace of Mopu has been donated by General Toda Rai (Kulvinder Ghir), who hopes the Sisters of St. Faith will rid the ‘House of Women’ of unhappy memories connected to his late sister, Srimati (Gianni Gonsalves). Although Clodagh ignores the warnings of the General’s raffish agent Mr. Dean (Alessandro Nivola), isolation and illness soon take their toll, with the haunting atmosphere of the palace particularly affecting volatile Sister Ruth (Aisling Franciosi). As past and present collide, the arrival of the young General Dilip Rai (Chaneil Kular) is the catalyst for an explosion of repressed desires that may end in a fatal confrontation
Horror is a tricky genre to properly portray on the small screen and it is particularly difficult when you are attempting to adapt a work that already has an acclaimed adaptation under its belt. Black Narcissus however achieves this in a tense and suspenseful production that does not imitate its 40s predecessor but presents a fresh and thoughtful production of this classic novel.
Beginning with the ambitious Sister Clodagh convincing her Mother Superior (Diana Rigg) that she is ready to lead a group of sisters to occupy the recently abandoned House of Women in the Himalayas, the episode unwinds in a slow, enticingly creepy manner like any classic James or Dickens with the sensation slowly dawning on both the characters and the audience that something isn’t right about the situation that is being presented. As the sisters attempt to make themselves comfortable and at home in their new community, they realise that the abrupt departure of the former residents, German monks, was not without reason.
The local bigwig, General Toda Rai is very keen for the Sisters to not only occupy the palace but to ensure that the local children are educated there – going so far as to bribe them in order for them to attend. However, even with these incentives it is clear both the locals and the General’s agent Mr Dean are aware of something that occurred there, something that has left its mark…
What Amanda Coe seeks to achieve with Black Narcissus is to adapt the original novel and ensure that it is as creepy and claustrophobic in its televisual form as it is in its literary form. This she not only achieves but excels at. The script has a rhythmic beat that is in keeping with any traditional gothic novel – the arrival of newcomers is welcomed at first until they rouse the resonance of something terrible that has occurred in the place they have arrived in. This builds to a startlingly executed crescendo at the end of the episode that leaves the audience in no doubt of the terrors that await it in the remaining instalments.
Coe is particularly successful in her use of mirrors throughout the episode, not just in how she contrasts the way in which both the natives and the nuns have different associations with it but also her mirroring of the relationship between Clodagh and her Mother Superior and that of Clodagh and Sister Ruth. The desire to control the actions of their junior but also to protect them is a dynamic element of the two relationships and one Coe brings fully to the forefront of her script.
The performances throughout are excellent with Gemma Arterton being especially mesmeric. She seems to glide effortlessly through her scenes, bustling when she arrives at the palace but with an inner stillness lurking beneath. It is this interplay between her desire to be serious and ensure order with her charges and her repressed need to live life to its fullest that makes her performance not only so quixotically enjoyable but also key to the plot. For Black Narcissus to work as an engrossing drama, the part of Sister Clodagh must be performed in a natural way that makes her need to prove that she can keep control of the convent not seem contrived but essential to our understanding of her character. Arterton certainly achieves this.
The first episode of Black Narcissus is a triumph in its combination of a wonderfully gothic script with stunning scenery that fully transports its audience to Mopu towards the end of the 1930s. It is a bewitchingly fine production that will serve as a future testament not only to the talent of the cast but also of the Amanda Coe in delivering such an exhilarating piece of drama, the perfect TV to watch as the dark nights continue to draw in.
The first episode of Black Narcissus airs on BBC One on the 27th of December from 9:00PM to 10:00pm with each successive part airing on subsequent nights.