While the performances are strong, this new adaptation about mysterious goings-on at a convent school lacks suspense
Nun the wiser … Sisters Adela (Gina McKee), Briony (Rosie Cavaliero), Ruth (Aisling Franciosi), Clodagh (Gemma Arterton) and Blanche (Patsy Ferran) in Black Narcissus. Photograph: Miya Mizuno/FX
The Guardian –Lucy Mangan
What is it about Rumer Godden’s 1939 tale of a band of nuns isolated in the Himalayas that attracts film-makers? The fact they are trying to set up a school in an erotica-lined palace that previously housed a harem, with nothing to distract them but the handsome agent of the Indian general who owns it? We may never know.
Anyway, here is Black Narcissus (BBC One), made famous by the 1947 film starring Deborah Kerr, in the form of a three-part miniseries. It stars Gemma Arterton in Kerr’s role as the ambitious Sister Clodagh, the youngest sister superior the Anglican convent has had and the driving force behind the move to establish the mission in the mountains. The mother superior is played, all too briefly but gloriously, by Diana Rigg, in one of her last roles. She knows trouble when she sees it and makes sure – or tries to make sure – the prideful Clodagh is sent off with people who will keep her in check, as well as have the wherewithal to turn an abandoned mansion into a shining beacon for the faith.
After a trek through the mountains, during which their white habits remain pristine, they arrive at the crumbling pile and get to work. The monks who were here before them left after 10 minutes, for reasons yet unknown, but Clodagh reckons her God squad can do better. Nuntastic! There is surely nothing to worry about. Yes, the candles are lit when they get there, doors bang and windows rattle, and there is spooky caretaker flitting around the place (whom viewers learn used to serve the princess who threw herself off the parapet 20 years ago, for more reasons unknown). But apart from that, and the dead cat and the penis illustrations all over the walls, all is well.
There are suggestions, in flashback, that these may not be the first members Clodagh has encountered. Whenever she has a moment to herself, she is flooded with memories of horse riding with a handsome man and being naked by a lake. This is a very bad thing in a nun. One of the first things they teach you in nun school is to leave your former life behind, especially if it involves horse riding or lake-nakedness. On the other hand, she is Anglican, so does it really matter? My Roman Catholic ancestors are shouting so hard in my ears – “They’re just playing at it!” – that my judgment may be off.
There is time to ponder these things, because Black Narcissus doesn’t exactly grab you in an unyielding grip – even when doors and windows of a more metaphorical nature start rattling after the handsome agent, Mr Dean (Alessandro Nivola), turns up. All the right ingredients are there – good performances from great players, gothic tropes, the mysterious this, the repressed that, the murky backstories strewn liberally and waiting to be revealed. But, at least in the opening episode – which puts us a third of the way through the story – it doesn’t thicken into a satisfying stew.
Before too long, Sister Ruth (Aisling Franciosi) begins to go potty under the strain. But as that strain has not been made credible, she seems more of a tiresome nuisance than a bellwether (or an ingredient for the stew).
While this is going on, Mr Dean brings into the convent a motherless local girl called Kanchi (Dipika Kunwar), for education by the sisters. They are going to wish they had brought someone with the mother superior’s eye for trouble. Mr Dean warns the mission not to intervene too much – especially medically – in the lives of the villagers, lest it go badly and harm their standing and safety. But when a wounded man is found in the garden, Sister Philippa (Karen Bryson) tends to him devotedly; they can hardly leave him to suffer. It is just a shame that Ruth chooses that moment, in front of a crowd of concerned onlookers, to announce that she has just seen the late, suicidal princess’s face in the mirror. Uh-oh!
If you squint hard, you may see an allegory emerging from the sight of the white Christians imposing their ways and means on a populace that was managing perfectly well without them. (This allegory would have been clearer and more potent in 1947 – the film starring Kerr was released in the UK only three months before partition.) But, for the most part, it feels as if they are just playing at it.