Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Space Oddities Film Review - Black Narcissus

Black Narcissus

Black Narcissus is a 1947 film direct by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger and stars British actresses Debroah Kerr, Flora Robson and Jean Simmons. The film centres around a group of anglican nuns who travel to a desolate monastery in the himalayas to set up a school and hospital for the locals.

From where we begin we are led to believe that the whole picture was actually filmed in the himalayas, in reality it was filmed within the confines of the Pinewood studios in England with some other shots filmed at the Leonardslee gardens in west sussex. This combination actually manages to create a startlingly realistic set.

Figure 1
The impressive drop in Figure 1 is actually the combination of a matte painting and a physical set, the drop is the matte painting and the bell platform the is the set.

The palace in which they nuns attempt to set up their school was not originally a monestary rather it was a harem for the local king and as such was filled with sexual imagery and other content inappropriate for the nuns. From there arrival the close bondage of the nuns and their vows of chastity begin to break down under the influence of the palace and the presence of British agent Mr Dean.

Living in such a sexually explicit palace is inappropriate for the chastity bound nuns of the church and seems to act as a trigger to resurface the troubled past of some of the nuns, from this we begin to learn of the true characters of the nuns. In a place where the strict church rules and safeguard of having the mother deacon remind them of their duties their integrity begins to falter.

Keith Uhlich of Time Out Magazine mentions in his review "You can fully sense the pervasive loneliness that entraps Sister Clodagh in distracting pangs of lost-love reminiscence, as well as the oppressive, sexually charged ambience that wreaks mental and metaphysical havoc on the frenzied Sister Ruth" (Uhlich, 2012). A possible idea to gleam from Uhlich's quote is how the palace and its locale puts the integrity of the nuns is put to the test as they are thrown into a strange and sensual world and how it reminds and almost amplifies their memoies of past relations. Uhlich mentions "sexually charged ambience", this could point to the sexual mages of the palace and presence of Mr Dean, alternatively it could also be the tension that manifests between Sisters Clodagh and Ruth over the attention of Mr Dean.

An important aspect of the film's production was the use of colour not just as a means of creating the exotic nature of the setting but also to convey the emotions of the nuns.

Figure 2
 We can see Sister Ruth observing Sister Clodagh and Mr Dean from a distance while bathed in shadows and orange light.

The use of colour helps to convey emotion by matching the mood to the colour not just by lighting but also by props and costume, for instance in the final scene where a near deranged Sister Ruth attempts to kill Sister Clodagh by pushing her off of the cliff Sister Ruth is dressed in a red robe while Sister Clodagh remains in her white nuns robes.

This could be a clash of more than emotion with the red robe symbolising love but also danger, action and blood, it could also befurther symbolic of Sister Ruth's fall from grace and abandondment of her vows. Sister Clodagh's white robes are symbolic of purity and integrity and how despite the temtpations around her she has remained true to her ideals.

FIgure 3
In Figure 3 we see Sister Clodagh inside the chapel hiding from a belligerent Sister Ruth, the lighting and colour have been toned down and project a sense of fear and uneasy tension.

Lighting is also a prominent part of the cinematography, as we can see in Figure 3 when combined with the soft, purple/pink colour it creates a tense situation. Kathleen Byron stated "He gave me half of my performance with the lighting" when talking about Michael Powell, the director of the film. The bright close ups of the nun's faces makes it easier for the audience to discern their emotions,  particularly those of sisters Clodagh and Ruth.

Figure 4
We see the faces of Sister Ruth and Sister Clodagh during the film, the lighting focuses solely on their faces and less on their clothes.

The combination of light, colour and its use of matte paintings helps to make Black Narcissus a striking piece in cinema though it it not remembered for its characters. Gary Morris of the British Light Film Journal states "Powell's heavy attention to the formal aspects of the film may have distracted him from the creaky plot, unnecessary subplots, and sometimes mediocre, soap-operaish acting" (Morris, 2001). In agreement with this is point is how despite the impressive qualities of lighting and cinematography the acting and story hold the film back, despite this the film still deserves praise and continues to be a significant achievement in the fields of lighting and colour.

Illustration List  
Figure 1
(N/A), 1947, black-narcissus.jpg [ONLINE], Available at: http://zendavis.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/12/black-narcissus.jpg. (Accessed 25th November 2014)

Figure 2
(N/A), 1947, psa-great-films-on-the-big-or-slightly-bigger-screen.html [ONLINE], Available at: hefilmexperience.net/blog/2013/1/4/psa-great-films-on-the-big-or-slightly-bigger-screen.html. (Accessed 25th November 2014)

 Figure 3
(N/A), 1947, blacknarcissus_color.jpg [ONLINE], Available at: http://theeyeoffaith.files.wordpress.com/2012/09/blacknarcissus_color.jpg. (Accessed 25th November 2014)

 Figure 4
(N/A), 1947, 1940s-lipstick-Kathleen-Byron-in-Black-NarcissusC.jpg [ONLINE], Availanle at:http://brightlightsfilm.com/33/blacknarcissus.php#.VHTkecmji3U. (Accessed 25th November 2014)

Keithes Uhlich, 2012,black-narcissus-3 [ONLINE], Available at: http://www.timeout.com/us/film/black-narcissus-3. (Accessed 25th November 2014)

Kathleen Byron, 1947, blacknarcissus.php#.VHTkecmji3U [ONLINE], Available at:http://brightlightsfilm.com/33/blacknarcissus.php#.VHTkecmji3U. (Accessed 25th November 2014)

Gary Morris, 2001, blacknarcissus.php#.VHTvi8mji3V [ONLINE], Available at: http://brightlightsfilm.com/33/blacknarcissus.php#.VHTvi8mji3V. (Accessed 25th November 2014)

1 comment:

  1. This is much better Max - the quotes are nicely integrated here :) Just don't forget to italicise them!