In retrospect, it may have been a mistake to watch the original Archers film production of “Black Narcissus” before screening the limited series “Black Narcissus,” produced for FX and BBC One. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s 1947 take on Rumer Godden’s novel is a cinematic landmark of its era, leaning on saturated colors, dramatic music cues and performances so pointed they threatened to draw blood. It’s dated but deliberate, tense and taut with simmering lust. This 2020 update, from writer Amanda Coe and director Charlotte Bruus Christensen, is careful to state that its primary source material is Godden’s book rather than the Archers’ film, and as such, should have more room to play with and develop the story. In practice, though, not even having three hourlong episodes versus a movie less than two hours long quite gives the series much of a personality of its own. Too much of FX’s “Black Narcissus” echoes its predecessor, especially in the particular flavor of sinister tone it tries to set, and the aspects that do deviate nonetheless have trouble distinguishing themselves as particularly compelling or necessary.
That the basic premise remains the same isn’t exactly the issue, though the story of British nuns slowly losing their grips at a mysterious Himalayan outpost, with all its poor children and exoticized traditions, hits differently in a 2020 media landscape versus that of 1947. The series, at least, corrects the film’s cardinal sin of casting white actors in Indian roles; the role of beguiling teenager Kanchi, for example, goes to Dipika Kunwar rather than the likes of Jean Simmons (who played that role in the film), and Nila Aala gets a meatier role as a wise local woman who pops up whenever the eerie mountain wind makes its presence known. And yet neither role, as you can probably tell from their descriptions, transcend the two-dimensional roots of Godden’s story, which of course prioritizes the wide-eyed nuns who barely make it through their Himalayan sojourn alive.
As far as those nuns go, there is at least some solid acting threaded throughout the series. Gemma Arterton admirably steps into the role of Sister Clodagh (i.e. the role played in the film by a restrained Deborah Kerr), a deceptively tricky part that requires her to convey a dual sense of pious righteousness and genuine compassion towards her charges. Supporting turns from Gina McKee, Rosie Cavaliero, Patsy Ferran and Karen Bryson find subtlety in the sisters’ growing fear. The late Diana Rigg doesn’t get much of anything to do besides tut in concern, but does a reliably memorable job with her brief scenes, anyway. And as the unraveling Sister Ruth, Aisling Franciosi perhaps gets the most leeway to create her own interpretation of her character and quickly injects Ruth’s spiteful turns with a believably brittle vulnerability.
Perhaps the best example of how this “Black Narcissus” struggles to forge its own identity is with the role of Mr. Dean, (Alessandro Nivola), a debonair lightning rod of a man whose swaggering masculinity sends shockwaves through the convent. Nivola, tanned and rugged, meets the brief and performs his duty of tempting Sisters Ruth and Clodagh with no trouble at all. But the dangerous electricity that pulses so viscerally throughout Powell and Pressburger’s interpretation of the story is somehow absent in Coe and Christensen’s. They take pains to point out where the lust lives, and even give Sister Clodagh some spicy flashbacks to flagellate herself over in the present. But being told that there is sexual tension is quite different than palpably conveying it. Mr. Dean and Sister Clodagh share plenty of stolen glances, the better to insist that there is something unspeakably sexy going on between them, but they somehow don’t quite connect like they should.
As could be expected from a collaboration between FX and the BBC, “Black Narcissus” is a handsome production that takes itself seriously. But it’s also ultimately and frustratingly, a bloodless one that doesn’t quite know how to get hearts racing like its tenuous premise requires.
“Black Narcissus” premieres Monday, November 23 at 8 pm on FX. All three episodes will be available to stream Tuesday, November 24 on Hulu.