The relationship between Sister Ruth and Sister Clodagh is what drives the drama. Gemma Arterton’s Sister Clodagh is just marvellous. She’s beautiful, kind, well-spoken and she’s a woman of God - a true saint. It’s really nice that this actress has found her niche playing characters from the 1930s-40s wartime era. She used to star in s**t Bond movies like ‘Quantum of Solace’ (2008) and crappy blockbusters like ‘Clash of the Titans’ (2010).
In stark contrast, you have the terrific Aisling Franciosi. I loved ‘The Nightingale’ (2019) as much as I could given it’s a film about a raped Irish convict setting out on a path of bloody vengeance across 19th Century Tasmania. Franciosi has a fragility about her, a neuroticism even, that shows in her very tight, tensed, slightly timid facial expressions. That’s certainly the character she was at the beginning of ‘The Nightingale’ and at the beginning of ‘Black Narcissus’.
I can’t quite say Franciosi is quite as good as Kathleen Byron who played Sister Ruth in the original and was quite simply the scariest nun ever put to film. But Franciosi puts her own spin on the character. There’s more of a backstory in this BBC version which I guess is much easier to develop in a three-part miniseries than it would be at the original’s 101 min runtime. I got more of a sense of Sister Ruth’s innocence in the Beeb adaptation.
The BBC ‘Black Narcissus’ is atmospheric and beautifully shot in Nepal (where I used to live), but most importantly taps into what made the original such a classic. That’s the culture clash between Christianity and Hinduism, between Britain vs. India. The story of a woman of God forced to question everything she believes in when setting foot in a foreign country.
I hope we get a second season and get to see more of Gemma Arterton being marvellous. If this isn’t quite up there with the Powell and Pressburger film, it’s pretty damn well close.
‘Black Narcissus’ is on BBC iPlayer now.
Freelance film critic, journalist and writer based in Nottingham, UK. Specialises in cinema.
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