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'Black Narcissus 1947' The Colourful Sins 11/11/2015

Fig 1 'Black Narcissus' Poster
This film review will focus on the uses of colour in this film, how the temple relates to temptation, how satanic themes are portrayed in the film and discussion about the films special effects. The film was made in 1947, was directed and produced by both                   'Michael Powell' and 'Emeric Pressburger' . "To attempt to film such a subtle, delicate story called for imagination, restraint and artistry in writing, directing and art direction. Emeric Pressburger’s screenplay was civilized, worldly, daring and obliquely discreet in conveying the gradual disintegration of the nuns’ psyches" (Ronald Haver. 1998).The film itself was very different for its time, focusing on 'Exotic Topics' such as insanity by seclusion and then having the production designer 'Alfred Junge' doing all of the symbolism so sneakily but very recognisable at the same time is absolutely genius.

Figure 2 'Black Narcissus' Bell Tower
Figure 3 'Black Narcissus' Bell Tower with no Effects
The special effects in 'Black Narcissus'  were extremely well done for their time, a lot of the special effects were done by miniatures (Metropolis) and Matte Paintings. The film is meant to be set in the Himalayas but the entire film was filmed in England, The co-directors created from Rumer Godden's novel an extraordinary melodrama of repressed love and Forsterian Englishness - or rather Irishness - coming unglued in the vertiginous landscape of South Asia." Peter Bradshaw. 2005) The way the effects are portrayed, the way the characters act and even what characters were chosen to be in the film were specifically chosen to give a sense of realism in the film. The symbolism behind some of the scenes as well are striking once realised, for example if you compare the beginning of the film with the end other the film you can clearly see that the being of the film has little to no colour, whereas at the end of the film there are many more vibrant colours on show. The general theme for the film is that vibrant colour is meant to represent sin, it is a very clever touch to the film as you do not recognise this unless done in detail. The best example that could be given is when one of the Nuns severely damages her hands with blisters from tiling soil. As the crop grows instead of it being Potatoes and Cabbages, it is instead pretty flowers showing that sin and temptation is beginning to creep in and waiver the nuns faith. The film was also in colour not black and white so you could say that there was not a lot of experience with colours in symbolism at this time due to technical limitations, so that fact they got this so perfectly correct is really astonishing.

Figure 4 'Black Narcissus' Monk
The monk in the film does only one thing in the film, meditates. We only see him a few times in the film but it is at those moments when do see him could have a lot more meaning than at first glance. Lets take the colour of his robes, they are orange, orange usually being a colour associated with determination, quite fitting to someone who is willing to stay rooted in one spot for years without movement or speech. However upon closer analysis there is a little more the monk, he is dressed in a particular shade of orange, dark brown orange. This colour can usually be related to deceit and distrust, now the fact that there is a man who sits atop a mountain all day would usually means he see's everything that goes on, including the events with the nuns and their arrival. Why is he sitting still? could it be out of fear as he knows what is about to happen? Or is it because he does not want to cause any harm to anyone else.

Figure 5 'Black Narcissus' Sister Ruth
Sister Ruth and Sister Clodagh are both extremely different characters and are very interesting to dive into about. On one side you have Sister Clodagh who was once a rich girl in love who became a Nun and left all of life's temptations behind to become pure. On the other side you have sister Ruth, a Nun who has given into the temptations of luxury and sexual desires, now she pays for sin by madness and death. First lets look at the colour of both of them, Sister Clodagh is this pure white colour, draped in silk robes almost like an angel. Also acting as somewhat of a mother towards the rest of the nuns she is the parental figure in this film and you can get a clear indication of this right away. She is the symbolic representation of purity, an angel to watch over others and a mother who will look after her own. Sister Ruth however is the opposite end of the spectrum, being a Nun having no attention so succumbs to the temptations of desire such as sex and luxury items. She is very different to most of the Nuns at the start of the film, being one of the only characters having blood on them could have foreshadowed what was happening to her. Slowly mentally decaying she begin to act much differently, gripping tables hard and always having this very devious and mischievous look on her face as if she can never be trusted. Then when she gets into full red clothing it is a dramatic transformation, almost as if she has been consumed by sin. Wearing this alluring red dress that makes her look stunning but at the same time you can tell something is not right with her, as if this beautiful exterior is hiding an ugly interior. She is a symbolic representation of sin, a devil who will bring down other and consume what she sees fit in order to get what she desires."It is Clodagh and Ruth who come to embody the film's mesmerizing conflict, becoming mirror images; extremes of human nature. Powell uses close-ups of both players to reveal Clodagh's uncertainty and Ruth's blind wantonness. Many have noted Kathleen Byron's portrayal of Ruth as over the top, but it never seems out of line with the film's mood, perhaps because her hostility feel right in sync with that of her environment's. The story's feel is remarkably consistent if not completely realistic. (Roger Ebert. 2010) So you can see how colour plays a big part in the film, the entire film is washed out until this moment where you are hit with this wall of colour and your not quite sure what to do.

Figure 6 'Black Narcissus' Mirror 1
Figure 7 'Black Narcissus' Mirror 2
Throughout the film the woman are tempted to give up their ways and embrace in their own desires, however there is one temptation that is in the film right from the beginning and is hinted throughout the entire film, sexual desires. One of the first hints at this is the temple, which is actually a brothel has paintings and props hinting towards its previous function throughout the film. Having mirrors in the shapes of human genitalia and and painting on the walls would have been pretty easy to spot once you have seen them. However there are small things put in place so that this desire never goes away, the best example that can be given is the bell. The bell can only be rung when a big rope is pulled downwards, it is also located right on the edge of a cliff and make such a loud empowering noise, when you take those factor and apply them to Sister Ruth you can see why she acts the way she does. Pulling down furiously on the rope, feeling the adrenaline from being on the edge of the cliff, the chills down the back of the spine from the sound of the bell and the physical work of pulling the rope could definitely lead to some sort of temptation. Even when Mr Dean rides away on a horse, spreading his legs wide and bouncing up and down, they are al small things but they would build up and drive some to temptation.


Haver, R. (1998) Black Narcissus. 
(Accessed on 17.11.15)

Ebert, R. (2010) ‘Black Narcissus,’ which electrified Scorsese | far Flungers. 
(Accessed on 17.11.15)
Bradshaw, P. (2005) 'Black Narcissus' In: The Guardian 5 August 2005
(Accessed on 17.11.15)

Image Biblography

Figure 1: Black Narcissus Poster

Figure 2: Black Narcissus Bell Tower

Figure 3: Black Narcissus Bell Tower (No Effects)

Figure 4: Black Narcissus Monk

Figure 5: Black Narcissus Sister Ruth

Figure 6: Black Narcissus Mirror 1

Figure 7: Black Narcissus Mirror 2


  1. Interesting and thoughtful review Tom :)
    Just be careful to proofread before you publish... you have a few bits that don't quite make sense, here for example -

    '...if you compare the beginning of the film with the end other the film you can clearly see that the being of the film has little to no colour...'

    1. Sorry Jackie, I need to get into the habit of that. I just get so happy its done that I post it straight away. Next review will be proof read, twice.


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