- Brian Donaldson
- 27 December 2020
Lush and lavish production about nuns in the Himalayas which promises much but only delivers disappointment
With no Agatha Christie adaptation on the roster and nothing from the Sherlock/Dracula writing team, this festive period's major BBC drama mini-series is taken from a 1930s novel about nuns which was turned into an iconic movie the following decade. After ploughing through three hours of Black Narcissus, you might well conclude that it should have all remained embedded in the last century. With a screenplay from Amanda Coe (Life In Squares, Room At The Top) and direction by Charlotte Bruus Christensen (previous cinematography credits include A Quiet Place and The Girl On The Train), this three-parter is very heavy on atmosphere and anticipation, but feather-light when it comes to delivering on the deep character angst and rich visual palette.
Gemma Arterton plays Sister Clodagh, a nun whose devotion has been worked at after a previous life, seen in flashbacks, featuring the smoking of roll-ups and larking around in golden fields with a fella. She heads up a small mission to a Himalayan clifftop palace which has fruity pasts and haunted vibes (we see a woman falling to her death some time before, in a loud and flashy opening sequence).
Clodagh leads a gang of nuns including the desperate-to-please Sister Briony (Rosie Cavaliero) and an edgy younger member, Sister Ruth (Aisling Franciosi) who is tasked with teaching young children she refers to as brats, and has a default scowl ready for everyone. All of this could probably be manageable for Clodagh, but some pesky men insist on getting involved at this makeshift convent/school, such as aspirant prince Dilip Rai (Chaneil Kular) who wants to continue his studies there despite the no-male educational rules, and DIY handyman Mr Dean. Alessandro Nivola seriously channels Indiana Jones for this role, with both Clodagh and Ruth clearly considering whether to avow their faith for a quick tumble.
There are attempts at jump scares, mainly through Ruth's continued ghostly visions, and a permanent sense that Black Narcissus will deliver a satisfying rush at any minute. It never comes. Not even after one character closes episode one with the doom-laden words 'it has started'. By 10pm on the 29th, you'll still be waiting.
BBC One, Sunday 27–Tuesday 29 December, 9pm. Watch on iPlayer.