When “Black Narcissus” was released in 1947, the film was hailed as a cinematic masterpiece for its Technicolor visuals. It was also condemned by the Catholic Church for its salacious premise involving nuns.
In 2020, saturated color in film is the norm, and what was once considered risqué now seems chaste, all things considered. And although a classic, it’s a film that most contemporary audiences are unfamiliar with — including Gemma Arterton, who stars in the miniseries remake. Introducing new audiences to the story was top of mind for the producers, as was updating dated elements of the original screen adaptation.
“Our producer is the grandson of one of the producers of the original film,” says Arterton, at home in London. “There was great admiration and love that we wanted to show, in terms of the design and certain shots.”
The remake stars Arterton as Sister Clodagh, who leads a group of Anglican nuns to a remote Himalayan town, where they plan to help establish a school and hospital. A major theme of the series is renouncement of identity, and sexual repression; the original film was controversial for its depiction of desire within the religious context. The three-part miniseries doubles the length of the original movie — which was based on a novel by Rumer Godden — and the expanded format allows for more time to build on the tension between characters.
“These nuns are always battling with a human desire to be a person, to be yourself. When they get [to the remote town], it unleashes all these different [feelings] in them,” says Arterton. “I was drawn to the project because I thought, well, what’s the right way to be?”
With a strong visual legacy — the 1947 film picked up Oscar and Golden Globe awards for best cinematography — the remake was a natural fit for Charlotte Bruus Christensen. The project marks her directing debut, following credits as director of photography for movies like “A Quiet Place,” “Fences,” and “Molly’s Game.” In addition to directing, Christensen also took on the role of cinematographer for “Black Narcissus.” “She’s developed an intimacy with actors, and has an instinct for how to shoot the performance and where to catch things,” says Arterton. “She’s one of these people who has bounds of energy and just does not stop.”
The show also stars the late Dame Diana Rigg, in one of her final roles.
Filming took the cast to Nepal for two weeks to shoot the exterior scenes. The 1947 original was shot entirely in London, and Arterton applauds the producers’ decision to shoot on location. “We got to be there and see what all the fuss was about; the beauty of [the Himalayas] and how desolate and isolated you are when you’re there,” she says.
Early next year, Arterton will appear in Matthew Vaughn’s blockbuster “The King’s Men,” a prequel of sorts to the “Kingsman” films. While Arterton hasn’t been able to shoot anything major this year, she’s been using the time to develop projects for her production company and get them ready to go for 2021. And, like many others, she’s picked up a new hobby. “I started painting and that’s something I’m enjoying — I’m not brilliant at it,” she adds.
The pandemic also offered Arterton an opportunity to shoot a short film written during the first lockdown by her husband, actor Rory Keenan, in his directing debut.
“It was something he always wanted to do anyway, even before the pandemic happened he mentioned to me, ‘Oh, I want to make a film with you this year,’” she says. “That was amazing — that we managed to make anything during this time.”
More from the Eye: