Black Narcissus review: “It struggles to find its feet”

If you’d told me at the beginning of the year that I’d spend my New Year’s Eve watching a mini-series about nuns set in Colonial India, I would probably have laughed. But with COVID making any sort of party impossible, that was exactly where I found myself on December 31. ‘Black Narcissus’, however, is no “sister act”. Marketed as a “psychological thriller” and based on the 1939 novel of the same name, it takes a look at the darker side of missionary work.

The series follows a small group of nuns led by Sister Clodagh (Gemma Arterton), who attempt to establish a school in a remote village in the Himalayas. Unbeknownst to them, the palace where they set up shop has a tragic past that begins to seep into their lives, disrupting their work and turning them against one another.

The cast is impressive, with Arteton particularly convincing as the conflicted leader of the group. Although the stand out performance is Aisling Franciosi as Sister Ruth, a mercurial young woman who is tormented by visions of the palace’s dark past and her unrequited passion for the handsome groundskeeper.

However, despite the promising premise and stellar cast, the show struggles to find its feet. The long build-up never really seems to pay off, with the hints of something darker remaining only hints. The setting also feels wasted, with the colonial themes shoehorned in and underdeveloped.  The inevitable tragic conclusion is shocking but coming in the last minutes of the three-episode long show, it feels like too little too late.

‘Black Narcissus’ is a show that sounds better on paper. While worth watching for the stunning locations and fantastic performances, it fails to convince as a thriller. Go in expecting a creepy period drama though, and you won’t be disappointed.

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Eleanor Carr

February 2021
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