Black Narcissus (Blu-ray)
Directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1 1080p AVC codec
Running Time: 101 minutes
Audio: PCM 1.0 English
MSRP: $ 39.95
Release Date: July 20, 2010
Review Date: July 10, 2010
A psychodrama of uncommon intelligence and haunting majesty, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s Black Narcissus is among the greatest films ever made. Its themes of repressed memories and passions are profoundly explored in one of the most unusual films of its time, and today it plays even more intelligently, an avant garde film for the masses made with impeccable taste, astonishing performances, incredible cinematography, and the kind of eccentric attention to detail that keeps it forever fresh and surprising. Every viewing reveals deeper psychological layers present in the screenplay along with a terrific chance to study in detail its meticulous construction. Only real masterpieces like this can withstand decades of close scrutiny and subsequently gain rather than lose power and prestige in the process.
Five nuns from the Convent of the Order of the Sisters of Mary in Calcutta are assigned to establish a new convent in Mopu, 9,000 feet up in the Himalayas in an old partially ruined palace where they will offer school for girls and a dispensary. Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr) is chosen to be Sister Superior even though she is very young and has never had so much responsibility thrust upon her before. Under her charge are the outgoing Sister Honey (Jenny Laird), expert gardener Sister Phillipa (Flora Robson), dispensary matron Sister Briony (Judith Furse), and the proud but emotionally unstable Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron). From the moment they arrive, problems ensue. The local land agent is the hedonistic Mr. Dean (David Farrar) whose very presence affects two of the sisters emotionally. Troublesome natives, both royal (Sabu) and commoner (Jean Simmons), are foisted off on the sisters causing a disruption of their objectives. Worst of all, the eerie atmosphere of the place with its constant wind, pure, thin air, and an aura of foreboding all around causes each of the sisters to become distracted from her goals and uncertain of any future success there.
Amazing though it may seem, apart for a couple of days of shooting at a garden location outside of London’s Pinewood Studios, the entirety of the film was shot on London soundstages and backlot using every bit of movie magic at the disposal of this highly gifted and enormously creative team of artists. The matte paintings used to give the elevated new convent a sense of height and depth are so astonishing that they’re still staggering to examine to this day, and the cinematography by renowned artist Jack Cardiff remains unmatched, one of the greatest ever expressions of mood created by light, shadow, and a thrillingly expert use of color. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger are examining passions of many kinds: of faith, of sex, and of duty among them, and the film is an exotic and erotic marvel, filled with moment after moment where passions seem to burst forth from the screen (and all done without nudity; actor David Farrar’s bare chest is as much skin as is ever revealed during the movie, and yet the movie’s sexual energy is as palpable as more typically graphic love scenes in modern melodramas.) That they capture the wildness and barbarism of the place (lewd frescoes and pornographic paintings on the walls add greatly to the mise en scène) without actually being in the real Indian locations is another of the film’s miracles, an amazing achievement from first frame to last.
The young Deborah Kerr is most impressive as Sister Clodagh, proud, a bit haughty, well meaning but struggling mightily both with memories of bygone days and with her attraction and antagonism for the randy Mr. Dean. David Farrar gives a memorably sexy and appealing performance as Dean, all the more striking because he isn’t trying to be either sexy or appealing but rather raw and real in the role. Kathleen Byron has the most madly volatile role in the piece, and she gives an unbridled, high-pitched performance that’s wonderfully in contrast with Kerr’s more conservative but equally telling emoting, the yang to her yin. The very young Jean Simmons is quixotic and alluring as the peasant girl Kanchi who steals what she likes and attempts to woo the young prince played with his customary poise by Sabu. May Hallatt overacts like fun as the caretaker Angu Ayah, and Eddie Whaley Jr. has some sweet moments as the young translator at the convent. Veteran Esmond Knight also has an endearingly funny scene as the Old General, ruler of the area.
The film’s original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.33:1 is faithfully reproduced in this very appealing 1080p transfer which has used the AVC codec. The most memorable aspect of this new high definition transfer is the excellence with its sharpness that’s unparalleled for a film of this age and a color richness that’s sublime without ever becoming too overpowering or vulgar. Details in skin tones, in faces and lips particularly, are astonishing and will likely lead viewers to hit the pause button to just gawk at the brilliance of some of these images. The black levels are superb with shadow detail first rate. Additionally, the print is exceptionally clean with not a scratch or bit of debris to be noticed. Like the Blu-ray release of The Wizard of Oz, the sharpness and detail here are so stunning that painted backdrops are more obvious now, and you can occasionally glimpse matte lines that shimmer just a bit. That’s not a fault with the transfer, of course, just an observation. The film has been divided into 19 chapters.
The PCM 1.0 mono track (1.1 Mbps) represents the sound recording from the era of the film’s production. Thus, the high end is a little shrill and the low end is pretty much nonexistent. There is also some slight hiss that the Criterion technicians have not been able to eradicate completely. Still, dialogue is clear, the music comes though with some power, and the sound quality is more than adequate.
A video introduction to the film by French filmmaker Bertrand Tavernier is English subtitled in white while clips from the film play in the background as he comments. It runs 8 ¾ minutes and is presented in 1080i.
The audio commentary for the movie is provided by director Martin Scorsese and director Michael Powell. Powell’s comments were recorded a couple of years before he died, and his thought processes are not always firing on all cylinders. Still, his comments are worthwhile. Scorsese’s enthusiasm for the film is boundless, so all of his remarks are also most interesting and worth hearing. There are major gaps of silence throughout the commentary, however.
“The Audacious Adventurer” is a 2005 interview with Bertrand Tavernier as he discusses various aspects of the movie: the casting of the various roles, the stunning photography, and the soundstage filming rather than going on location. The 1080i documentary runs for 17 ½ minutes.
“Profile of Black Narcissus” is a 2000 documentary featuring actress Kathleen Byron and cinematographer Jack Cardiff among others discussing the making of the movie. The clips used to illustrate the discussion in no way resemble the staggering quality of the transfer on the disc. Presented in 1080i, the featurette lasts for 25 ½ minutes.
“Painting with Light” is a tribute to cinematographer Jack Cardiff and his work on the movie. Kathleen Byron also contributes comments about his brilliant work on the film. Running for 26 ½ minutes, it’s presented in 1080i.
The film’s theatrical trailer runs for 2 ½ minutes in 1080p.
The enclosed 23-page booklet includes the chapter listing, the cast and crew lists, some stunning color portraits of the actors and some striking color stills, and an appreciative essay on the movie by film critic Kent Jones.
The Criterion Blu-rays include a maneuvering tool called “Timeline” which can be pulled up from the menu or by pushing the red button on the remote. It shows you your progress on the disc, the title of the chapter you’re now in, and index markers for the commentary that goes along with the film, all of which can be switched on the fly. Additionally, two other buttons on the remote can place or remove bookmarks if you decide to stop viewing before reaching the end of the film or want to mark specific places for later reference.
4.5/5 (not an average)
One of the world’s great cinematic treasures looks the part now with this stunning high definition video transfer from the Criterion Collection. Excellent bonus features only enhance what is already one of the world’s movie masterpieces. Highest possible recommendation!