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Black Narcissus [Criterion Collection] Blu-ray Review

  • Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1
  • Video Codec: AVC/MPEG-4
  • Audio Codec: English PCM 1.0 (48kHz/24-bit)
  • Region: A
  • Rating: Not Rated
  • Discs: 1
  • Studio: Criterion
  • Blu-ray Release Date: July 20, 2010
  • List Price: $39.95

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Overall
[Rating:4/5]
The Film
[Rating:4.5/5]

Video Quality
[Rating:4/5]

Audio Quality
[Rating:4/5]

Supplemental Materials
[Rating:3/5]

Click thumbnails for high-resolution 1920X1080p screen captures

(Screen captures are lightly compressed with lossy JPEG  thus are meant as a general representation of the content and do not fully reveal the capabilities of the Blu-ray format)

The Film

[Rating:4.5/5]

Erotic, exotic and sensual are just a few of the words that have been used to describe Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s Black Narcissus over the years. It themes of sexual repression, escaping the past, and taming the wild lend itself easily to those descriptions. Certainly the film, based on the book by Rumer Godden, aided by the wondrous cinematography of Jack Cardiff — awash in delicate light and shadow like a Vermeer — is visually sensual, an exotic treat through Northern India all remarkably done on a studio in Britain.

Black Narcissus, the story of a group of British nuns who travel to Northern India, near Darjeeling, to start a nunnery, a school, and a hospital, in converted brothel and to “tame” the locals, only to find themselves undergoing personal challenges, grappling with their pasts, and personal desires may be all sensual and exotic on the surface, but it is much more than that.

It should be pointed out that 1948 was the end of British reign in India, just one year after the release of Black Narcissus. In many ways, Black Narcissus was a story still grounded in British colonialism. The idea that these nuns, led by Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr) would have to go and save these individuals from themselves is indicative of that. Black Narcissus, however, was already at that point in colonial culture, particular in India, where there was a realization amongst the British that perhaps they just didn’t know what they were doing.

We see it from the moment our protagonists arrive at their “brothel” and they are at first overwhelmed by patients to their new hospital, only to find they have been paid to attend the clinic. Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron), one of the most memorable characters ever in cinema, immediately begins to go through a mental breakdown, becoming jealous of the perceived relationship between Clodagh and Mr. Dean (David Farrar).

So, where they arrived with the intention that they would save the locals, a typically colonial idea, in fact, they swooped in with corrupted ideals and pasts only to find locals wiser than they assumed.

But, getting back to that erotic, sensuality, it resides in Black Narcissus in abundance. It is restrained. It is in a passing glance between Sister Ruth and Mr. Dean or a reprimand by Sister Clodagh toward Mr. Dean, such as when he arrives at Christmas services drunk — and in those flashbacks of Sister Clodagh to a time in Ireland before she was a nun.

Mostly, however, the sensuality resides in the imagery of Jack Cardiff. It’s dappled eyes staring out from the corner of a room. It’s Sister Ruth in a scarlet dress. It’s those white-hot habits and pale pink lips glistening in the “Indian” sun.

These are all Oscar-worthy achievements, and Black Narcissus was rightfully honored with a couple of Academy statuettes in 1948 for cinematography and art direction.

Video Quality

[Rating:4/5]

Black Narcissus was created on a Spirit HD Datacine with the participation of original cinematographer Jack Cardiff and Michael Powell’s widow, editor Thelma Schoonmaker Powell. The new high definition transfer was taken from a newly manufactured 35mm interpositive.

The transfer has film-like quality throughout with a fine layer of grain maintained. Detail, though generally strong, sometimes tends to waver and soften. Color reproduction, contrast, and shadow detail are definite positives in this transfer, presenting Jack Cardiff’s cinematography with extended details, deep blacks and bursts of color.

Audio Quality

[Rating:4/5]

The monaural soundtrack was remastered at 24-bit from the original optical tracks. Clicks, thumps, hiss, and hum were manually removed using Pro Tools HD. Crackle was attenuated using AudioCube’s integrated audio workstation.

The soundtrack appears on disc in a PCM 1.0 mix. Dialogue and dynamics are quite good in the monaural soundtrack and crackle is hardly evident. There is good distinction between sound effects and dialogue and speech is intelligible. Despite being only 1.0, there is sufficient depth to the soundstage.

Supplemental Materials

[Rating:3/5]

Criterion have brought their typically in depth supplements to the table for this release of Black Narcissus. Film lovers are sure to appreciate the audio commentary, recorded in 1988, featuring Powell and friend Martin Scorsese.

The supplements provided with this release are:

  • Commentary: Recorded exclusively for the Criterion Collection in 1988, this commentary features director and coproducer Michael Powell and his longtime friend and admirer Martin Scorsese. Powell reminisces about the production and his unique relationship with his filmmaking partner, Emeric Pressburger, while Scorsese provides analysis and discusses the impact that the Archers have had on his own career.
  • Bertrand Tavernier (1.33.1; 1080i/60; 0:08.43) — French filmmaker Bertrand Tavernier has long championed the films of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, and was close to Powell for many years. This introduction to Black Narcissus was recorded for the Institut Lumière in 2006.
  • The Audacious Adventurer (1.33:1; 1080i/60; 0:17.27) — In this 2006 video interview, filmmaker Bertrand Tavernier recalls his friend Michael Powell and his stories about the making of Black Narcissus.
  • Profile of Black Narcissus (1.33:1; 1080i/60; 0:25.29) — This twenty-five-minute documentary on the making of Black Narcissus was produced in London in 2000 and features interviews with several members of the Archers’ original production team, including actress Kathleen Byron and cinematographer Jack Cardiff.
  • Painting with Light (1.33:1; 1080i/60; 0:26.31) — This half-hour piece about renowned cinematographer Jack Cardiff’s Oscar-winning work on Black Narcissus was made for Criterion Collection in 2000 by London-based filmmaker Craig McCall. McCall is the director of Camerman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff, a feature-length documentary on Cardiff, who is responsible for some of the most gorgeous and atmospheric camera work of all time, including that in Powell and Pressburger’s The Red Shoes and A Matter of Life and Death.
  • Theatrical Trailer (1.33:1; 1080p/24)
  • Booklet: An Essay by critic Kent Jones, credits, and information in the transfer.

The Definitive Word

Overall:

[Rating:4/5]

Religion, romance, sensuality, and colonialism converge in this cinematic classic. Michael Powell’s direction and Jack Cardiff’s cinematography combined for a winning combination in a film that cannot be categorized. What is it? A drama? Suspense? Romance? Who cares? It’s one that must be seen and this Criterion Blu-ray release is the perfect way to see it.

Additional Screen Captures:

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