Even at what seems like the end of the world, it is impossible to escape the toxicity of the patriarchy. In FX’s “Black Narcissus,” an adaptation of Rumer Godden’s same-named bestselling 1939 novel (adapted as a film in 1947, starring Deborah Kerr in her breakout role), men of both Eastern and Western cultures remain certain of their superiority. The rigidity of Christian ideology, and the narrow role for women within it, was shaped by men; the strict caste system of various ethnic groups in the Himalayas, in particular those with royalty, was shaped by men. Their overlapping point is in how they treat women: as disposable and dismissable.
So it goes for the women of “Black Narcissus”—all three episodes of which air on FX on November 23—who are tasked with defending ideals that are ingrained after centuries, aren’t open to transformation or adaptation, and are often not the women’s own. But they’re dealing with forces larger than individuals here: with history, ritual, and tradition. If you consider those things too long, and realize the insignificance of our lives within them, your sense of scope might slip. You might wonder what difference you can even make, and what purpose your life actually serves.
Longtime cinematographer and first-time director Charlotte Bruus Christensen and screenwriter Amanda Coe probe at those introspective questions by coupling evocative imagery with an only intermittently effective ghost story. Godden grew up in British-controlled India and later lived in Kashmir as an adult, and “Black Narcissus” was informed with myriad cultural details accumulated over her life. For the most part, this miniseries adaptation of her novel avoids a colonial gaze, making clear that the discomfort felt by the British nuns around the indigenous people of the village of Mopu is an extension of their own narrow-mindedness and prioritization of Christian doctrine. But what the series lacks is confidence in wielding the mystical content it uses as an instigating event for the nuns’ slide into insubordination and dissent, and that inconsistency is its most detrimental flaw.
In Darjeeling, in British-controlled India in 1934, Sister Clodagh (Gemma Arterton) is an image of faithful severity: her head is shaved; her all-white habit covers practically every inch of skin. Despite the reservations of Mother Dorothea (the late Diana Rigg, to whom the miniseries is dedicated), Clodagh is named as the sister superior for a new school and mission in Mopu in the remote Himalayas. “So many ‘I’s,” Mother Dorothea admonishes when Sister Clodagh passionately speaks of how she’s the right woman to spread God’s word, and it’s perhaps a punishment for Clodagh when Dorothea assigns the younger Sister Ruth (Aisling Franciosi) to join the Himalayan party as well. Clodagh sees Ruth as an upstart; Ruth sees Clodagh as a hypocrite; and yet the women are stuck together in the the palace being gifted to the religious order by General Toda Rai (Kulvinder Ghir). Across precarious swinging bridges, high up in the mountains, and perched on the edge of the cliff waits the palace, a place that exudes an ominous energy from the very first moment the women see it.
No one thinks the women will stay very long. Not the villagers, who saw a German group of monks abandon the palace only a year before. Not the palace’s caretaker, Angu Ayah (Nila Aalia), who has worked there for decades, since when it used to be a home for the general’s grandfather’s concubines. And not the general’s agent Mr. Dean (Alessandro Nivola), who serves as his representative to the nuns, who makes his disdain for Christianity and the mission known, and who butts heads with Sister Superior Clodagh immediately. “Pride is a sin, Sister Clodagh. One of the deadly ones, if I remember correctly,” he smirks when she attempts to dismiss his help, and that combative energy spreads throughout the mission, infecting everyone.
Locals call the palace “the House of Women,” Mr. Dean had told the nuns, and “Black Narcissus” builds in time to demonstrate how each of the women is impacted by the isolation of their new home. Sister Ruth soon sees a mysterious woman roaming the palace. What happened in this place before the nuns arrived, and why it is making Sister Ruth so volcanically angry? Sister Blanche (Patsy Ferran) is unnerved by Mr. Dean’s warning that helping the villagers could lead to trouble; what are they there for if not to provide aid? Sister Briony (Rosie Cavaliero) is wary of Sister Ruth’s increasingly erratic behavior, but equally unsure about Sister Superior Clodagh’s temper. And Sister Philippa (Karen Bryson), tasked with growing the mission’s vegetable garden, begins to get lost in the beauty and wild expanse of the landscape. Perhaps the holy man who sits immobile outside the palace, staring unceasingly at the mountains, understands something about this place that the nuns don’t.
The series is at its best when it tackles those questions of faith—not just the differences between the Christian nuns and the Himalayan villagers, who are varyingly Hindu, Buddhist, or atheist, but the personal relationships between the nuns themselves and their religion. Can punishment provide as much satisfaction as atonement? Are acts of charity really selfless if their purpose is to spread a certain religious ideology? The arguments between Clodagh and Mr. Dean and the conversations between Clodagh and her sisters are the series’ most thoughtful moments, and they round out these women. When the series centers the women’s struggle with following orders that don’t always make sense to them and upholding a religion that doesn’t always respect them, “Black Narcissus” is at its most purposeful. But as Christensen and Coe stray from that grounded content, they stumble. The greatest issue is in the maybe-literal, maybe-not ghost story, which tries to create a vibe akin to Shirley Jackson or Henry James but with thoroughly predictable methods (creaky doors, flashbacks to disaster, increasing whispers). Without a firm commitment one way or another regarding the realism of that spooky content, the Himalayan characters involved in that subplot feel hollow, and the nun who begins to spiral in response to them skews outsized. Another episode might have served to better snap these characterizations into focus and smooth out a narrative imbalance that makes “Black Narcissus” feel simultaneously slowed down and sped up.
But “Black Narcissus” offers some pleasures, particularly as a cohesive binge watch. Christensen pulls double duty as cinematographer and captures the loneliness of the palace through overhead shots that show its place among the clouds and the very, very long way down. She makes good use of light and shadow to show the mission as a place teaming with secrets, even as the sisters are supposedly united in their call to God: stripes of light segmenting Ruth’s face; Clodagh’s face bathed in glowing red; two graves next to each other at the bottom of a mountain, alike in their finality. Some scenes on the palace’s dangerous belltower look suspiciously like green screen, but Anne Dudley’s score trains you to greet with sinking dread the shrieking strings paired with that location. Arterton believably plays Clodagh as a woman desperate to forget a past that fills her with longing rather than regret, and her Clodagh and Franciosi’s Ruth are startlingly venomous to each other. Their extreme swings keep us on our toes regarding which woman is telling the truth, and as the observer to their escalating enmity, Nivola does his typical roguishly handsome thing to great effect. It’s a shame, though, that Aalia has so little to do after serving as the “foreboding foreigner” role in the first episode, and Chaneil Kular and Dipika Kunwar, who play the general’s nephew and Mr. Dean’s ward, respectively, are charming enough to have warranted more screen time. The former’s delivery of “Allow me to congratulate you on the birth of Jesus Christ” when he is invited to a Christmas party at the palace is the series’ funniest moment by far.
“There was a man,” says Clodagh when trying to explain her decisions, and “Black Narcissus” is sympathetic to the idea, as old as time, that men hurt women. What the series is also considering, though, is how women hurt each other and themselves, and the ensemble cast’s steady work imbues those suggestions of self-sabotage and self-hatred with sensitivity and nuance. But the psychological thriller angle of “Black Narcissus” that is so integral to this narrative isn’t really there, making for an uneven adaptation. As a cross between Sofia Coppola’s version of “The Beguiled” and Martin Scorsese’s “Silence,” “Black Narcissus” works, but anyone craving legitimate spookiness should look elsewhere. [B-]
All three episodes of “Black Narcissus” air on FX on November 23 and will be available on FX on Hulu on November 24.