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Isolation is a Very 2020 Concern and Among the Issues Raised in 'Black Narcissus'
November 23, 2020  | By Mike Hughes

If you remake a movie every 70 years or so, you can expect some changes.

One example is Black Narcissus, the sprawling mini-series that airs at 8 p.m. ET, Monday, on FX, then moves to Hulu.

Based on a 1939 novel, this was a 1947 movie that's well-liked by movie elite: "My wife (Emily Mortimer) had made a (Martin) Scorsese movie," actor Alessandro Nivola said in a Television Critics Association (TCA) virtual session. "He made Black Narcissus required viewing for all of the actors in the movie…. I remember loving it."

The basic story persists: Nuns travel high in the Himalayas to revive an abandoned mission. Soon, there are culture clashes, plus jealousy and profound loneliness.

"When I'm somewhere where there's vast beauty and total isolation…I get a crushing feeling," said Aisling Franciosi (top), who plays the young and troubled Sister Ruth. It's as if "you don't matter."

This new version is almost twice as long as the original. It was filmed as a three-parter, but FX will air it in one chunk, nearly four hours counting commercials. There are changes, large and small.

"One great update from the original film was that I didn't have to wear shorts nor ride a three-foot-tall pony," said Nivola, who plays Mr. Dean, a cynical war veteran.

Other changes were more substantial. The original film was shot entirely in England; even the key role of a young native went to Jean Simmons, an Englishwoman.

And this time? "We were very keen to cast Nepalese actors and film in Nepal," said producer Andrew Macdonald.

That location took some effort, said Gemma Arterton, who stars as Sister Clodagh. "It took us something like two-and-a-half days to get there…. The air is really thin, and you get altitude-sickness. But it also makes you feel really alive. It's the most beautiful place I've ever seen."

And finding a Nepalese actress? That's Dipika Kunwar, 25.

When her family moved from Nepal to England in 2012, she was still a teen, seeing prospects for an acting career. "I was like, 'This is my chance. Let's see if I can't try.'"

Her lone film role was a 16-minute short in 2016. The next year, she read about the Black Narcissus project. "Finding a character that is Nepalese in a production in the West is rare."

It would be two more years before auditions began and she got the role. Soon, she was back to her native land for ten days, with many of the actors staying in a hotel, an hour from the shooting site.

"There was no phone reception, no wi-fi either," Franciosi said. "And one of the happy results of that was we became so close so quickly because we would be sitting around in the evenings around the fire, having a couple of drinks, playing games, chatting."

Isolation can be pleasant that way or can cave in on people. The nuns in the story didn't seem to be having a couple of drinks, playing games, or even chatting.

Their leader is Sister Clodagh, played by Arterton, a busy actress whose projects have ranged from Jane Austen to James Bond, plus lots of Shakespeare.

"I did feel sort of a connection, I guess, to Clodagh," she said. "This kind of control freak who is desperate to do well, and that kind of gets in the way."

High in the Himalayas, in a different world, life is hard to control.

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