Today is the birth centenary of one of my favourite actresses, the superb Deborah Kerr. Born on September 30, 1921, Deborah Jane Trimmer got a break in the world of show business thanks to an aunt who was a radio star: Deborah began training in ballet at her aunt’s ballet school, and then went on to win a scholarship to Sadler’s Wells ballet school, which led to her appearing onstage as a dancer. Deborah soon came to the attention of the film producer Gabriel Pascal, who gave Deborah her first role in cinema, in Major Barbara (1941).
Till 1947, Deborah worked in Britain; it was her role as Sister Clodagh in Black Narcissus that got her noticed across the pond and brought with it a contract with MGM. Over the decades that followed, Deborah Kerr became a name to be reckoned with in Hollywood as well: a major actress who went on to play very varied roles in very diverse films. From roles in classic adventure films (The Prisoner of Zenda, King Solomon’s Mines) to horror (The Innocents), from wartime romance-drama (From Here to Eternity, Heaven Knows Mr Allison, Vacation from Marriage – the last-named, in fact, was the basis of the very first review I ever posted on this blog) to musicals (The King and I) to period drama (Quo Vadis, Ivanhoe, Julius Caesar) to classic romance (An Affair to Remember) and many more… Deborah Kerr was always memorable, always likeable.
Which film should I watch to commemorate Deborah Kerr’s centenary? I have watched a good deal of her filmography (some more beyond the films I’ve already listed in the previous paragraph), so I decided I’d finally watch a film I’ve long been hearing praises of. Black Narcissus, which provided a big boost to Deborah Kerr’s career.
The story begins in Calcutta, at a convent where Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr) is given a momentous bit of news by the Mother Superior (Nancy Roberts): the establishment of a convent at Mopu Palace, high up in the mountains beyond Darjeeling, has been approved. This is a project Sister Clodagh had also been pushing for, so the Sister Superior has decided that Clodagh will be the one heading the little convent up at Mopu. The Sister Superior isn’t absolutely sure of Clodagh—she’s young and inexperienced—but there’s no help for it.
A bunch of other nuns are chosen to go to Mopu, where the sisters will be setting up a dispensary and a school for the village children. These include Sister Philippa (Flora Robson), who will be in charge of the garden; Sister Briony (Judith Furse), who is sturdy and strong; Sister Honey (Jenny Laird), who has a charm and sweetness that endears her to all. And, finally, Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron), about whom Clodagh has her misgivings. Ruth is ill and will probably be no use to them up at Mopu. Mopu, a forbidding, fascinating place.
But the matter’s been decided, and the nuns set off up to Mopu. The British agent there, a man named Dean (David Farrar), has written to warn them of just what is in store for them, but when they arrive, Clodagh and the other nuns are horrorstruck to find just what Mopu Palace is like…
This place had once been the home of the Old General’s womenfolk, and there’s an opulence, even a somewhat decadence, about the palace that’s very at odds with the nuns and their austere religiosity. The walls are covered with finely worked murals depicting nudes and scenes of lotus-eating, so to say; massive chandeliers hang from the ceilings; there is the occasional bit of fine furniture still around, like a velvet-covered sofa with fussy (but fraying) decorations, and a roomful of bird cages.
The one person the nuns can turn to here is the eccentric old maid, Angu Ayah (May Hallatt), who used to serve the Old General’s women here, and has stayed on long after the women have gone. Angu Ayah is brash and bold and not at all cowed by the nuns or their determination (such as it is) to succeed in their mission to attend to the physical and spiritual well-being of the local villagers. Dean, who goes to Mopu to give Ayah the news of the nuns’ imminent arrival, finds her prancing about the place and rather gleeful about this news.
Soon after the nuns arrive, they receive a call from the imperious but well-intentioned Old General Toda Rai himself (Esmond Knight), who reassures them that he’s on their side. Thanks to him, the little convent acquires a little interpreter: Joseph (Eddie Whaley Jr), who’s the son of the general’s cook. Joseph, besides knowing English, is a smart little fellow who probably knows more than he lets on.
Soon, too, comes Dean. Riding a donkey, wearing shorts and a floppy hat, a man who has no compunctions about confronting the nuns with the truth: this area is too wild, too beyond their ken for them to succeed here. He gives them till the rains break; they won’t last beyond that. Clodagh puts her chin up and takes up the challenge, but it’s obvious that Dean has disturbed her.
Not just because he is too forthright, even abrasive, for his own good; but also because he has a sort of easy animal magnetism about him that is lethal to a nun of an order that does not believe in eternal vows. No; this order requires the nuns to renew their vows every year. A nun who realizes the order is no longer for her may, without fear of censure, leave the order and go back into the secular world.
It isn’t just Clodagh who finds Dean attractive; so too does the ‘ill’ Sister Ruth (though she seems more highly strung and tense than typically ‘ill’ as it would have been interpreted back then). Ruth stares out of the window, peering at Dean as he walks out of the convent. There is a mad fascination in her eyes, which doesn’t escape the sharp eye of little Joseph, even. And when Dean happens to come calling, Ruth is in a flurry of excitement, rushing about, hanging on his every word, misinterpreting it, even.
And, as if to underline all this repressed sexual tension, there is brought into the convent a young woman named Kanchi (Jean Simmons, who has no dialogues in this film, and whose name everybody pronounced as kainchi—scissors—rather than kaanchi, which is a name I’ve heard before in the Hiamlayas, especially Nepal). Kanchi is wild and wilful and obviously very aware of her beauty.
A beauty which is appreciated by another newcomer: the Young General (Sabu) has made up his mind to be taught by the nuns, and though Clodagh tries to tell him they can’t teach him much of what he wants to learn, he insists that he will learn whatever they can teach: French, for instance. The Young General can barely get through his lessons without stumbling because there, looking on adoringly at him from under a screen, is the beautiful Kanchi.
What with this relationship blossoming under their very eyes, and Dean coming by every now and then, Clodagh is reminded of her own past: the days from before she became a nun. When she lived in Ireland, was very much in love with her childhood sweetheart Con (Shaun Noble) and was looking forward to marrying him.
Between that starry-eyed young woman of that not-all-that-distant past and the tense, worried nun today who flounders about, unsure of herself and her faith, trying desperately to control her swiftly loosening hold on the convent, the sisters, and herself, is a seeming chasm. Clodagh has come a long way. Or has not.
What I liked about this film:
Deborah Kerr as Sister Clodagh: her performance is a nuanced one, portraying all the many shades of this young woman’s life and emotions superbly. Some of Clodagh’s inner turmoil comes through in dialogue, of course, but there’s a lot that’s just seen: in her eyes, for instance, or a flicker of a smile. This is a woman trying to make her way through a minefield. The secular world she has tried to leave behind by joining the order is, as she realizes when she comes face to face with it in the environs of Mopu Palace, here again, even more daunting and hard to deal with perhaps than it had been back in Ireland, or even in Calcutta.
Clodagh’s dilemma, her wavering determination to be true to her vows (which, remember, are not eternal, and therefore a temptation that might sway her), pitted against her very natural instincts—is palpable. She is attracted to a man whose attractiveness perhaps goes up a few notches because he is also the object of affection of another woman? And the milieu, what with those sensuous images and that echo of passion that seems to still linger in the halls of Mopu Palace, adds a suggestiveness to it all.
Then, to top it all off, there’s the obvious chemistry between the Young General and the infatuated Kanchi.
But Clodagh is here to be Sister Superior. To do her work, to make sure the nuns do their work. To serve, to teach, to heal: that is their mandate and their mission, and Clodagh means to carry it out. You can see her grow increasingly stressed as time passes; you can see the effort it takes her to keep her dignity intact. An excellent performance.
And, the beauty of some of the frames. Directors Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger and cinematographer Jack Cardiff create some stunning and memorable spaces with light and shade. While talking of the look of Black Narcissus, it’s worth mentioning that the backdrops—those soaring peaks and all—were based on black and white photographs, on top of which artists painted on the colours.
What I didn’t like:
What came across to me as a somewhat forced attempt at reinforcing the exotic-ness of the locale. Rumer Godden, on whose book this film was based, had spent a good bit of her formative years in India (having been brought here as an infant) and had returned to India later in life too, living in Calcutta for several years; she is likely to have known India fairly well (which seems to be the impression from a couple of non-fiction books of hers that I’ve read). I wish, though, that those responsible for making this film had known India better, or had actually used Indian advisers (or ‘Himalayan’ advisers? Perhaps Mopu is probably more Nepal or Sikkim?) to help.
The perfunctory ‘exotic India’ may pass muster with people who don’t know India or the Himalayas well, but to somebody who does, there is the occasionally jarring detail, Kainchi/Kanchi being the least of them. There are costumes and jewellery that don’t quite ring true, there is a proliferation of exotic (non-Indian) wildlife in Dean’s home (which might be possible, but looks like someone thought any parrot and any monkey fits in an Indian setting); Dean himself wears clothes too skimpy for mountains as high as this—it never gets so hot this high up that you’d habitually wander round shirtless.
But, all said and done: an interesting (and visually beautiful) film anyway, and worth watching even if just for Deborah Kerr’s acting.
Thank you for the cinema, Ms Kerr. May your films live on.