This week, BLACK NARCISSUS premiered on FX and the BBC. A joint-production, FX marketed it as a creepy show based on the 1939 novel by Rumer Godden. Though, watching the three-episode miniseries, I’m not sure that accurately describes it. In fact, this show is very hard to define exactly what it is or what genre it belongs in.
BLACK NARCISSUS begins high up in the Himalayas with a disturbing opening in a cliffside “house of pleasure,” or that’s what it appears to be, anyway. (The truth is close enough to that.) A tragic event happens. Then, about twenty years later, a quintet of nuns move into the abandoned building to form a school for the locals. The place seems suitable to their needs, though there are just a few strange things that happen, especially to one nun in particular, sort of related to that opening.
I’m halfway through the miniseries as I write this and I plan to finish it. But I’m still not sure exactly what to say about BLACK NARCISSUS when considering it overall. There isn’t a sense of urgency or danger in any real way (except when climbing those railing-less steps). There also isn’t any certainty that something big will happen before the end. I am not familiar with the novel or the 1940s film adaptation, but this seems to be a slow-moving drama without an overriding central narrative, other than running a school, and maybe being haunted just a tiny bit.
The setting of BLACK NARCISSUS is absolutely beautiful. The views from the mountain are, as you might imagine, breathtaking. I don’t have much frame of reference to say how accurate it is, and I wonder about the feasibility of building a ‘palace’ so far up and having other stone-hewn villages nearby. But the design is very cool and detailed, and this certainly seems like a place I would love to visit.
Gemma Arterton (The Girl with All the Gifts) stars as Sister Clodagh, the leader of the little group, and she is very compelling. Sister Clodagh’s inner life is explored through a series of flashes to a different time. It’s unclear if these are things that actually happened or just what she wishes her life to be like. But it’s informative to see her wavering of the mission when outwardly she is so focused and holy. She is doing her best in running the group, and she’s not bad at leadership. Though she can be a bit petty at times.
The rest of the roles are well-performed, too. My second favorite is Mr. Dean (Alessandro Nivola, Chimerica), an immigrant who has blended in with the locals, and who offers handyman support and eye candy for the nuns. I assume he’ll have something to do with how things end, but that’s unclear at the moment. I really like friendly Sister Briony (Rosie Cavaliero, Hold the Sunset), a good moral center and caretaker to the group. Sister Philippa (newcomer Karen Bryson) is intriguing and odd. Sister Ruth (Aisling Franciosi, The Fall) provides the right amount of crazy, pretty shocking, but not so much as it feels weird that she’s still among them. Nila Aalia (Wolfblood) is wonderful as Angu Ayah, the local who lives among the nuns, and seems to be the only one who really knows the secrets of the place.
For the performances and the vistas, I recommend BLACK NARCISSUS. After all, it’s a small time commitment, basically a movie and a half, and those are important elements. My hesitation stems from the lack of clear story, but maybe the second half will pick up? I doubt it. Even so, it’s neat to sit in this world for a few hours.
BLACK NARCISSUS is available to watch in its entirety now on Hulu, through FX.