Imagine: You're stuck inside with your Sisters, your home a sanctuary in the midst of an environment that feels unfamiliar and hostile. As your core desires go unfulfilled, the stress of isolation and repetition takes its toll, pushing you to your breaking point.
The plot of the new three-part limited series Black Narcissus became a lot more relatable during the pandemic. A remake of the Oscar-winning 1947 film (itself adapted from the novel by Rumer Godden), Black Narcissus—which airs in full tonight at 8pm ET on FX—centers on a group of Anglican nuns who attempt to establish a monastery and school in a remote, mountainous Napalese village in 1934. Led by the well-intentioned but self-righteous Sister Clodaugh (Gemma Arterton), the nuns intend to educate and enlighten the locals by refurbishing a palace built for discrete royal indulgences. But the building’s history—along with the nuns own sense of displacement—soon has them questioning their mission, along with their own moral rectitude, and even their sanity.
Black Narcissus is patient in its pacing and plotting as it slowly winds its way to a powerful climax. Beyond the script, it’s a remarkable exercise in the craft of visual storytelling, featuring award-worth performances from Arterton, Aisling Franciosi, and Alessandro Nivola, along with gorgeous cinematography, costuming, and set design.
“Doing a miniseries is such a gift because you have the time to...explore what's really going on,” Arterton said in a recent conference call with reporters. “This is all about what's happening inside these people. It's a thriller, really, a psychological thriller. And so I think, for me personally, I did feel sort of a connection to Clodagh, this kind of control freak who is desperate to do well, and that kind of gets in the way. She's proud, and this pride that she has is something that I related to.”
As Sister Ruth, a sensitive young nun who slowly starts to unravel, Franciosi gives a haunting performance.
“Sister Ruth is...a really interesting character because in the world of this religious order where you are asked to strip yourself of all identity, all of the things that make you you for the purpose of this blind faith, this adoration, this calling that you can't see...the psychological effects that it would certainly have on me and I could see having on Ruth, that was something I found really interesting,” Franciosi said.
Arterton said that the restrictive costuming was a useful resource for getting into character.
“I found that the posture and the habit—the actual costume, the habit—really helped because...at that time, you weren't supposed to touch or even keep your gaze outside of the habit,” she said. “That's why they are there, it's kind of like blinders. We were completely constricted. I mean, we had these wimples on that covered our ears, and our hands were, sort of, inside our robes. So, there was nothing you could really do with your body. So, I became really stiff, which I found really helpful.”
Picking up on that theme, Alessandro Nivola—who plays Mr. Dean, a disaffected British expat who works for the local general and assists with the restorations at St. Faith—said that the period costuming helped him to better understand his character.
“It's always shaming as an actor when you first meet all of the design people, because they've thought so much more about your character than you have," he said. “They present you with tiny little, like, cigarette lighters and things that you would have had because you fought in the war and this is what they use in the First World War. And all of the things that, really, you should have been working out for yourself before meeting them, they've done. And that's why the first meeting with the costumers and the designers, it actually, like, launches you into the psychology of the role a lot more than sometimes the work that you've been doing on your own before meeting them.”
The all of the actor’s reverence for the crew is both apparent and well-earned: As a cinematographer making her directorial debut, Charlotte Bruus Christensen brings a painterly quality to the look of Black Narcissus, filling her shots with a soft color palette that adds to the dreamlike quality of the story.
“We were inspired by the old movie, actually, and the way they did their couple of iconic shots that we felt were important to put in there to show that respect and to honor it,” she says of the visual aesthetic. “But the sort of old‑fashioned style in other old movies like Gone with the Wind...not that it was a direct inspiration, but more, sort of, the way of communicating, the way you use the camera, the way you don't run away from it was key.”
Filmed prior to the pandemic, the cast and crew were able to shoot on location in Nepal, an experience that helped them better connect to their characters and the story’s themes.
“We were so lucky to be able to see that because it's a huge part of why the nuns, kind of, unravel — the godliness of the place makes them start to question God,” Arterton says.
“To actually be up there — I mean, the mornings we had in those places were just extraordinary, and this story is so much about how you cannot control this place,” Christensen says. “Mr. Dean says it quite clearly early on in Episode 1, this thing of ‘Time doesn't exist.’ So I think for all of us, because that was the first thing we did was to go to Nepal, [it put] in our head how dramatic the environment is and then in the extreme beauty/ loneliness that there must have been.”
Those opposing tensions are emblematic of the story as a whole. Ultimately, Black Narcissus is an exploration of the pressure that builds when we’re caught between irreconcilable dialectics. The sensation of feeling trapped with limited options may have particular resonance in 2020, but ultimately, it’s a timeless theme that connected as much with audiences in 1947 as those watching today.
All three parts of Black Narcissus air tonight beginning at 8pm ET on FX. Follow the link below to get Sling Blue with FX for the best price.