Adventures In Celluloid

Film critic Dominic Corry celebrates, clarifies and justifies his love for all things film.

Dominic Corry: Black Narcissus and other classics back on the big screen (+video)

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A scene from Black Narcissus.
A scene from Black Narcissus.

Yesterday morning I went out to Albany's Event Cinemas to see Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's masterpiece Black Narcissus on the big screen.

The screening - shout out to the four pensioners who shared the cinema with me - was part of Event Cinemas' Retro Showcase, which runs over the next couple of months in Auckland and Hamilton theatres. Wellington's Embassy Theatre is also participating.

There are few things I treasure as much as being able to see older films on the big screen. Before the advent of home video, movies would have a life in the theatres that lasted far beyond their initial release.

Auckland still doesn't appear to be able to support a dedicated repertory theatre like Melbourne's amazing Astor, so we must make the most of these kinds of showcases when they occur.

I was particularly excited to see Black Narcissus on the big screen as it's known for its striking visuals and calculated colour palette. The 1947 melodrama is about a group of Anglican nuns who set up a makeshift hospital and school in a rundown palace situated high atop a Himalayan mountain.

But their noble goals to help the local peasants are undermined by an increasing sense of isolation and mania.

The legendary Deborah Kerr (From Here To Eternity) heads the cast as the tormented Sister Clodagh, and delivers a dazzling lead performance.

But the film really belongs to Kathleen Byron, who plays the unstable and jealous Sister Ruth with a maniacal physicality and a penetrating stare.

The ever-increasing tension is unnerving in the most thrilling possible way, and elevates what by modern standards is a somewhat middling story to operatic levels.

The film is worth seeing for the costumes alone - the nuns all in white with their rigid headdresses look like ethereal stormtroopers.

But the most amazing thing about Black Narcissus is that despite the pervasive presence of vertiginous cliffs and awe-inspiring distant mountain peaks, the backgrounds were ALL painted.

Co-directors Powell and Pressburger wanted colour to play a large role in the storytelling (like in their other famous collaboration, 1948's The Red Shoes), and thus sought complete control over the look of the film, filming all the mountaintop scenes on a set with backdrops painted on glass.

The brush strokes may be occasionally be visible, but the backgrounds pop visually in a way their modern digital equivalents rarely do. Plus the colour schematics enhance the drama to no end.

Black Narcissus must be seen on a big screen to truly appreciate what Powell and Pressburger were trying to achieve, so check it out at one of the screenings listed in the schedule here.

The Retro Showcase features numerous other classic films that would be a treat to see on the big screen, everything from Gone With The Wind to West Side Story to Labyrinth.

I shall continue to highlight some of my picks here as the season progresses.

Watch the trailer for Black Narcissus:


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