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The Indy Film Club: How Black Narcissus heralded the slow death of the British Empire

In Powell and Pressburger’s exploration of eroticism and sexual repression, western values are seen to crumble in the face of the slightest challenge, writes Clarisse Loughrey

Friday 22 May 2020 15:50 BST
As Sister Clodagh, Deborah Kerr’s sharp, thin features melt into dreamlike serenity – it’s one of her greatest performances
As Sister Clodagh, Deborah Kerr’s sharp, thin features melt into dreamlike serenity – it’s one of her greatest performances (Rex)

Occasionally, cinema offers an image so provocative, it burns right through the screen. In the 1947 classic Black Narcissus it’s the sight of a pair of lips being painted in garish red. They belong to Ruth (an electric Kathleen Byron), a nun who has rejected her vows in favour of lust and madness. Her habit has been traded for a bewitching, crimson-coloured dress. Her hair is pristinely coiffed. But she looks pale and feverish, a sign either of infection or demonic possession.

One of the great gifts of Michael Powell and Eric Pressburger, known as The Archers, was their ability to encapsulate each film in a single image. In 1948’s The Red Shoes, it’s the moment Moira Shearer’s ballet dancer clasps the side of her head in wild, sweaty desperation – she’s a woman torn between love and art. All of Black Narcissus can be contained within Ruth’s lipstick tube, with its exotic promises of sexual liberation. Today, the film plays as a gorgeous, scintillating melodrama. But for Britain in the late Forties, rife with repression and postwar trauma, it was nothing less than explosive.

Based on a novel by Rumer Godden, the film follows a handful of Anglican nuns on an abortive mission to found a convent high up in the Himalayas, in a palace once used to house the local ruler’s harem. Powell, who did the majority of the directing, chose not to film on location in India, but at London’s Pinewood Studios, with a handful of scenes shot in the west Sussex garden of an Indian army retiree. Matt paintings were used instead, meaning the mountain ranges were all rendered on large sheets of glass. Still, Powell received letters from people who were convinced they’d travelled to the exact locations in the film.

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