Black Narcissus movie review & film summary (2020)

FX’s “Black Narcissus” struggles for three hours to justify its existence. Naturally, by virtue of length, some characters and themes get more screen time than in the 101-minute original. But none of the expansion registers as valuable. Honestly, if I had to attest to what the longer runtime does to the story, I’d have a tough time figuring it out beyond sheer repetition and a slower build of anxiety and dread (offset by the tedium that comes with that slower pace). As if they were too scared to really move beyond the text of the book and original film, there’s not much narratively significant here that’s not in the sources. Which, again, leads one to ask, why bother? Successful remakes like “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” or “The Thing” found entirely new ways to tell their stories. This is almost closer to Gus Van Sant’s “Psycho” in that it’s so reverent to the material that it feels like it has nothing new to say.

Luckily, the production values and ensemble make the repetition at least bearable. The underrated Gemma Arterton steps into the shoes of Deborah Kerr to play the role of Sister Clodagh, who leads a convent of nuns newly assigned to a remote Himalayan palace. Clodagh is sent there by Father Roberts (Jim Broadbent) and Mother Dorothea (Diana Rigg, in her final role). When she arrives, she meets the charismatic Mr. Dean (Alessandro Nivola), who serves as both a guide to the area and something of a temptation. Issues of cloistered sexuality, regret, devotion, and cultural differences once again arise in the story. With more time, one might expect more subplots for different sisters on this mountaintop but writer Amanda Coe and director Charlotte Bruus Christensen focus mostly on the triangle of Clodagh, Dean, and Sister Ruth (Aisling Franciosi), who starts to unravel from pretty much the minute she gets there.

“Black Narcissus” constantly seems like it’s about to start exploring an interesting idea only to flit away to something else. Powell & Pressburger weaved their themes through their story, with a timeliness in 1947 regarding British-Indian relations that feels like it’s been removed entirely from this version. The cultural differences here are shallow, often used to build dread like the warnings of a codger who tells kids not to go to Camp Crystal Lake again this year. The original film’s honest sense of beauty with its setting and people sometimes feels betrayed here for the sake of atmosphere.

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