As many of us have learned the hard way, this year-ish of lockdown has forced some perspective. Spending more hours with oneself or in the close company of a household without the relief of possible escape has led some to clean up and reorganize inside and out. Though affecting everyone differently, the pandemic has managed to unify us in one way, at least: a communal sense of strangeness.
The same uncanny tension permeates Black Narcissus, a taught three-hour miniseries on FX (and Hulu the following day) based on Rumor Godden’s 1939 novel. In it, several members of an order of Anglican nuns stationed in Darjeeling, India, make their way up into the Himalayans to Rajput to start a school. Invited by the royal General, they are picking up where a recent order of German monks gave up, having left under mysterious circumstances.
Taking place at the twilight of the British Raj, the deeply atmospheric Black Narcissus could have easily made for a third season of The Terror. Like that anthology’s first season in particular, we find a group of English subjects striking out into the unknown, ultimately trapped in a place they do not understand. And yet, what ultimately leads to their downfall is not the place itself, or its perceived monsters, but what they learn about themselves.
The miniseries, written by Amanda Coe and directed by Charlotte Bruus Christensen, mixes the intoxication of nostalgia and hope with the dread of falling prey to it. It begins with a violent act that sets the stage for a ghost that haunts the nuns—one in particular—but these manifestations mostly come in the form of various desires. The former palace for concubines is extraordinarily remote, sitting high upon a mountain, with its bell tower overlooking a fertile valley from an extraordinary height. But it is not sterile; the colorful walls also feature erotic paintings, and despite the sisters’ best efforts to get rid of building’s many mirrors, they are mesmerized when they do catch a glimpse of themselves, having been deprived of anything so vain in decades. It is the first of many cracks in their resolve.
At the heart of the story is Sister Clodagh (an outstanding Gemma Arterton), one of the youngest members to ever reach the status of Sister Superior. She is cautioned by the Mother Superior, Dorothea (Diana Rigg, in one of her final roles), to mind her pride. But all of the sisters—Ruth (Aisling Franciosi), Briony (Rosie Cavaliero), Blanche (Patsy Ferran ), Philippa (Karen Bryson), and latecomer Adela (Gina McKee)—struggle with the move to Rajput and its effects on them and their faith. Simple breezes blowing through open windows evoke memories of romance; the place is just too wild, too beautiful. Like the bold “Black Narcissus” scent that the General’s nephew wears when he comes to the school for his lessons, the palace’s temptations begin to overtake the sisters in subtle, quiet, hinted-upon ways. The series has many things in common with the spooky, dreamy, classic Australian film Picnic at Hanging Rock, where an innocent encounter with an ancient, wild place leads to the disappearance of several school teachers and students. Were they taken, or did they run away? Did they perish, or were they set free?
Temptation also arrives at the palace more forcefully in the form of Mr. Dean (Alessandro Nivola), a handsome British war veteran and all-around rogue figure who chafes against the convent’s strict rules and customs. An associate of the General, Mr. Dean helps the women get the now-convent in working order for themselves and their established school. He also, naturally, catches the eye of both Clodagh and the unstable Sister Ruth, the latter of whom develops an ill-fated infatuation with him.
A longer series might have investigated more of the other sisters’ personalities and pasts, as well as that of a promising young local woman, Kanchi (Dipika Kunwar), one of the story’s many characters to fall victim to a doomed relationship. But mostly we stay close with Sister Clodagh, watching the toll her responsibilities take on her and the curt, capable manner in which she handles everything. Yet she is also easily caught up in the reveries of her past, and we see how her eventual friendship with Mr. Dean softens her—perhaps to the detriment of her vocation. That softening is true across the board, though: so taken by the beauty of their location, gardener Philippa plants flowers instead of vegetables; Blanche helps a local child despite warnings from Mr. Dean that it could backfire; Ruth becomes obsessed with the memory of the princess who once lived in the palace and was driven mad by her circumstances.
Despite its convent setting, Black Narcissus is not an exploration of faith or even leans particularly heavily on it. But it does, beautifully, show the ways in which the sisters quietly mark time with prayers and daily tasks—often in bare-bones and realistic ways, but occasionally including scenes like a beautifully composed Christmas vigil filled with lanterns, baking, and warm interiors. Whatever happiness the sisters find is usually short-lived, though. Their location is both glorious and harsh, and they struggle to adapt in a meaningful way. What ultimately holds everything and everyone together is Clodagh, who is at constant odds with Ruth but tirelessly attempts to bring her close and help her troubled mind. Ruth, though, is essentially reacting to the instability all around them at the palace, a war between desires and repression, and a failure to balance the Order’s rigid customs with simple humanity. “You are only human,” Mr. Dean tells Clodagh. “Yes, I’m starting to learn that,” she wryly replies. But as the light fades behind a sky-cutting ridge and Clodagh and the other sisters grow weaker, any sense of who they are begins to fade. One evening, Clodagh approaches a holy man who has sat unmoving, staring at the mountain peaks around them since they first arrived. She follows his gaze as the wind whips around her and asks, “What do you see?”
All three episodes of Black Narcissus premiere Monday, November 23rd on FX, and will be available on Hulu the next day.
Allison Keene is the TV Editor of Paste Magazine. For more television talk, pop culture chat and general japery, you can follow her @keeneTV
For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.