RSS Feed

Tag Archives: Esmond Knight

Black Narcissus (May 26, 1947)

A lot of people make a big deal of the fact that Black Narcissus was released the same year that India became an independent nation. The film, which was written, produced, and directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, is a sensuous, beautifully lensed Technicolor production. (Black Narcissus won two Academy Awards. Alfred Junge took home the award for best art direction and set direction in the color category and Jack Cardiff won the Oscar for best color cinematography.)

The reason a lot of people make a big deal of its 1947 release is because a major theme of Black Narcissus is the inability of the British heart and mind to penetrate the mysteries of the Indian subcontinent. Deborah Kerr plays a young Anglican nun, Sister Clodagh, who is appointed Sister Superior of the Convent of the Order of the Servants of Mary, Calcutta. Not only does the convent occupy an abandoned harem high in the Himalaya mountains, but Sister Clodagh will be the youngest Sister Superior in the history of her order.

The plot of Black Narcissus isn’t as important as the mood the film creates, its scenery, or its overwhelming sense of lush sensuality.

Michael Powell wrote of Black Narcissus that it was the most erotic film he ever made. “It is all done by suggestion, but eroticism is in every frame and image, from the beginning to the end.”

None of this is to say that the eroticism of Black Narcissus is the only thing that makes it worth watching. It’s a fine character study and a well-acted story of the clash between fantasy and reality. But its visual textures, breathtaking scenery, and exquisite attention to detail are overwhelming.

Remarkably, Powell and Pressburger — who produced films together under the name “The Archers” — created all of their majestic Himalaya settings on the soundstages of Pinewood Studios. Usually matte paintings call attention to themselves and fool no one. In Black Narcissus they are seamlessly integrated into the rest of the film and are good enough to create a sense of vertigo in the scenes in which Sister Clodagh rings the enormous bell that hangs near the precipice on one side of the convent.

Black Narcissus is not a perfect film. While the performances are generally good, especially from Kerr as Sister Clodagh, David Farrar as the insouciant and charming British agent Mr. Dean, and Kathleen Byron as the unhinged Sister Ruth, the native characters are mostly played by British actors, which doesn’t always work. The 18-year-old English actress Jean Simmons is beautiful and beguiling as the dancing girl, Kanchi, but her light-colored eyes clash with her brown face makeup. Much less effective is May Hallatt as the deranged Angu Ayah, a servant inherited by the convent. Her screeching Cockney line delivery was so confusing that for most of the picture I wasn’t sure where her character was supposed to be from. (The only Indian actor in the film, Sabu, who plays the Young General, is from southern India, not northern India, where the film takes place.)

But these are minor quibbles. Black Narcissus is a stunningly beautiful film that I look forward to seeing again some day. Despite its sometimes outlandish story and its melodramatic elements, it’s a meticulously crafted piece of art from the greatest British directors of all time.

Advertisements

Henry V (June 17, 1946)

Laurence Olivier’s film adaptation of Shakespeare’s history play Henry V was originally released in the United Kingdom in November of 1944. (The date I’ve listed above is the release date of the film in the United States.) Following its release in the United States, Henry V was nominated for a 1946 Oscar for best picture, as well as Oscars for best actor, best score, and best art direction. It didn’t win in any of its nominated categories, but Olivier did receive an honorary Academy Award “for his outstanding achievement as actor, producer, and director in bringing Henry V to the screen.”

The recognition was well deserved (even though Olivier considered the award a “fob-off” from a jingoistic Academy). This film is a splendid achievement, and holds up remarkably well. Not only is it a fine cinematic adaptation of a great play, it’s a beautifully crafted film within a play within a film, in which Olivier the director has fun with convention while Olivier the actor delivers an assured and commanding performance as Henry, only recently a monarch after a misspent youth (chronicled by Shakespeare in Henry IV parts one and two).

The film’s full title is “The Chronicle History of King Henry the Fift With His Battell Fought at Agincourt in France,” and that’s how the title appears on the opening placard, which invites people to attend “Will” Shakespeare’s play, performed by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men at the Globe Playhouse this day, the first of May, 1600. There follows a panoramic vista in gorgeous, nearly surreal Technicolor of the London of Shakespeare’s day. It’s obviously a model, but it’s an effective one, with wisps of smoke rising from chimneys and tiny vessels dotting the Thames.

The beginning of the film attempts to faithfully recreate the theatrical experience one would have had at the Globe during Shakespeare’s time. There are no set dressings, and the Chorus (Leslie Banks), in each of his appearances, invites the viewer to suspend his or her disbelief, vividly describing the scene that is about to be played, and in so doing draws attention to the artifice of the play. As the film goes on, however, it moves out of the confines of the theater and becomes increasingly realistic, reaching its apex when Henry finally leads his troops in battle against the French at Agincourt.

Artifice and realism aren’t strictly delineated in Henry V, however. When the film first moves out of the theater to the court of France, the ocean is a static sea of waves that looks like the backdrop for a puppet show in Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. And after the impressive battle, which was filmed in County Wicklow, Ireland (as a neutral country, it wasn’t ravaged by the war), artifice slowly returns in the form of phony-looking backdrops and a return to the stagey castle set of the French court.

When Olivier first appears on screen, it is as Oliver the actor, standing backstage in full costume, waiting for his entrance cue, and coughing into his hand in a decidedly unheroic fashion. As soon as he steps on stage, however, his voice commands attention. By the time he delivers his famous Saint Crispin’s Day speech, I was eating out of his hand. This is no mean feat, either, considering the historically accurate haircut Olivier saddled himself with, as well as his very noticeable eye makeup.

It’s common knowledge that Henry V was made with the cooperation of the British government and designed to be a nationalistic morale booster in the days following the Allied push into Normandy. Consequently, the scene in which Henry threatens to rape women and kill children was excised from the script, along with the hanging of Bardolph and Henry’s order to kill French prisoners. But it’s all in keeping with the tone of the film, which is more a celebration of theater and patriotism than it is a nuanced character study.