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While 'Black Narcissus' May Hit Some Stock Themes, It's Still an Intriguing Thriller
November 23, 2020  | By David Hinckley  | 4 comments

It's 1934, and a bunch of nuns from India troop across part of the Himalayas to move into an old palace in a remote village where they plan to start a school for native children.

What could possibly go wrong?

Perhaps equally to the point, does this sound like a story you really want to spend a night watching on television?

The question is valid. But Black Narcissus, which airs Monday at 8 p.m. ET on FX, turns out to be surprisingly absorbing.

It also isn't a big investment of time. It only runs three hour-long episodes, and FX is showing them back-to-back-to-back before they migrate to Hulu on Tuesday.

Based on a popular Rumer Godden novel from 1939, Black Narcissus was adapted for a theatrical film in 1947 before being revived again now.

What elevates Black Narcissus this time around is a splendid performance by Gemma Arterton (top) as Sister Clodagh, an ambitious young nun who convinces Mother Dorothea (Diana Rigg, in her last performance) to let her lead the five nuns who will run this school.

Sister Clodagh is determined to make her mark somewhere. So is Sister Ruth (Aisling Franciosi), whom Mother Dorothea includes in the group despite Sister Clodagh's misgivings.

That inevitably causes some friction, but not before the group has run into bigger problems.

For starters, it turns out that a group of German monks had made a similar attempt to start a school in the same palace a year earlier and had abandoned the effort for reasons that aren't quite clear.

At the end of a long hike on foot through the Himalayas, while dressed in full habits, the nuns meet the palace's resident local, Angu Ayah (Nila Aalia). She's cordial, and she's cautious because she knows things about the palace and the village that she correctly figures the nuns will have to learn on their own.

The locals, not surprisingly, are fine with the idea of educating their children. What they don't want is for outsiders to start poaching their culture or introducing elements that undermine village life. Nuns being from the Catholic Church and all, they do have their own agenda, and that stirs some discontent as well.

The primary thread of Black Narcissus, however, spins out from the presence of Mr. Dean (Alessandro Nivola), a handsome all-purpose handyman and philosopher who seems to come with the building.

After annoying Sister Clodagh for the first third of the story, Mr. Dean wins her trust and friendship, which would be fine except, frankly, Mr. Dean and Sister Clodagh are both so young and vibrant that viewers will find themselves wondering why she's a nun and he's a handyman at a remote palace.

The explanations for those implicit questions come at a price. They also come in a cluster since several other characters face heart-vs.-mind crises in their own emotional lives. That includes Kanchi (Dipika Kunwar), a young girl that Mr. Dean brings to the school in hopes it can boost her into a better life.

Crises of faith, crises of duty, and crises of the heart are hardly uncharted waters for literature and film. Black Narcissus, given its time, place, and characters, could easily get lost in the murky, abstract symbolism beloved only of hard-core art-film fans. It doesn't. Civilians can understand it, and in the end, it's rather touching.

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