As we saw with Netflix’s remake of “Rebecca” a few months ago, finding a new way to tell a tale already identified with a master filmmaker is tough. It’s a feeling that immediately washes over you during the first episode of FX and the BBC’s miniseries “Black Narcissus.” An adaptation of Rumer Godden’s 1939 novel, it will be hard for those going in to not compare it to the landmark 1947 film adaptation of Godden’s novel directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. But even those entering this series with no prior knowledge of the film will have trouble connecting to its quiet, overly contemplative retelling.
Set in the 1930s, we meet Sister Clodagh (Gemma Arterton) who, along with three other women from her order, are tasked with turning a Himalayan palace into a school and hospital. Upon arrival the nuns soon discover the isolated mountain-top locale once held the harem of the Rajput General.
There’s a fantastic breadth and depth to the locations, immediately presented as Sister Clodagh and the other nuns arrive at Mopu, the palace they hope to turn into St. Faith. The palace remains opulent and intense, even as it’s covered in age and curtains, the latter the result of the missionaries’ attempts to convert the building’s past away from sin and licentiousness.
Production designer Kave Quinn shows her range, transitioning from the sparking, pastel world of “Emma” and dialing it down here. As Sister Clodagh and the other sisters become more comfortable, Amanda Coe’s script attempts to look at the nature of beauty and the line between vanity and godliness.
The 1947 iteration of this story was under two hours, and it’s hard to say that this new incarnation justifies its three hour running time. That being said, what Coe’s script chooses to focus on is interesting when its allowed to be something other than contemplative — a great example is Sister Philippa, demurely played by Karen Bryson.
The script never makes a big deal out of Sister Philippa, a Black woman, being embraced by this predominately white order of women. Instead, the audience sees her struggle with isolation by eschewing the planting of a vegetable garden with flowers. Sister Clodagh, determined to be the perfect postulant, believes the flowers would be seen as a gesture of vanity, to which Sister Philippa questions whether they wouldn’t be proof of God’s glory.
What this take on “Black Narcissus” does is question how religion butts up against gender mores. Where can a woman assert herself when a religion like Christianity spends so much time reminding a woman that her place is to serve? Sister Clodagh is told at the beginning of the series that she’s “prideful,” which stems more from her desire to look like a leader than anything else.
Arterton has big shoes to fill, considering Deborah Kerr played the character back in 1947. But what the English actress brings to the role is a rabid desire for acceptance. Her Clodagh understands inherently that the deck is stacked against women and yet wants to present herself as the best of her gender. By the time the narrative reaches its conclusion, the lines between the individual and the divine are completely blurred. The narrative is fully Arterton’s but Bryson, Rosie Cavaliero, and Patsy Ferran are equally solid. Ferran, especially, is particularly resonant as the kindhearted Sister Blanche, aka Sister Honey, whose connection to the local children ends up breaking her soul.
The culture shock is present throughout, from the holy man who sits atop the hill next to St. Faith to the local citizens who refuse to accept medicine from the women. Unlike the themes of desire and regret that are borne into the audiences’ heads again and again, the exploration of how these white Christian women in the 1930s would take to a nation so different than their own is subtler. As time goes on Sister Ruth (Aisling Franciosi) becomes the one to manifest her mental deterioration through a hatred of the locals, covering her mouth in their presence and asking them not to touch her.
As played by Franciosi, who dazzled in Jennifer Kent’s “The Nightingale” last year, the showier role of Sister Ruth — whose embrace of vanity (and red lipstick) became an indelible image in the 1947 version — gives a needed burst of energy to the production. Like nearly all the other women who aren’t Sister Clodagh, the audience doesn’t know much about Sister Ruth or what drew her to the order. So when she starts to grow obsessed with Mr. Dean (Alessandro Nivola), the right hand man of the General and the order’s handyman, it’s chalked up to youth and/or an inherent problem just waiting to pop out. However, once Sister Ruth starts to lean into her hatred it gives “Black Narcissus” a necessary jolt to the system.
Nila Aalia, Chaneil Kular, and Dipika Kunwar represent the native populace the women encounter. Aalia plays Sister Angu, in charge of overseeing the Princess, whose suicide in the pilot hangs over Mopu, while Kular and Kunwar play students at the school whose relationship ends up breaking the fragile truce between the nuns and the locals. All three remind the women that they are strangers in a strange land, while Kular and Kunwar, as Dilip Rai and Kanchi, respectively, have a doomed romance that is enough to propel the entire third act.
The biggest issue with “Black Narcissus” is the justification of its running time. All three episodes see heavy emphasis on flashbacks, whether that’s the death of the Princess or Clodagh’s past relationship. These fragmented snippets are lovely and show a contrast between their lives now and the idyllic past they wish to get back to, but the buildup leads to just staid reveals with little bombast to them. By the final episode it’s hard not to see them as filler.
“Black Narcissus” is a beautiful production but its melancholic tone is a hard sell to keep audiences sustained over three episodes.
“Black Narcissus” airs on FX on Monday, November 23 at 8 p.m.