TV Review: Black Narcissus

A quality cast including Gemma Arterton and Dame Diana Rigg can’t save Black Narcissus for me

“Better honey than vinegar”

A funny one this, particularly for the captive audience of the inbuilt lethargy of the Twixmas period. In the absence of Sarah Phelps’ brilliant reinventions of Agatha Christie, Black Narcissus was the BBC’s big drama punt on the festive schedule but I’m not entirely sure if it was the right choice.

Based on the Rumer Godden novel and famously filmed in 1947 by Powell and Pressburger with Deborah Kerr, the story follows a band of Anglican nuns as they try to establish a new mission in the Himalayan mountains. Their chosen base is a former palace with erotic paintings on the bricks, a troubled history seeping from the mortar and a swarthily handsome agent who keeps popping by – Sister Act this ain’t.

But exactly what it was I couldn’t quite work out either. Writer Amanda Coe and director Charlotte Bruus Christensen make the most of the magnificent scenery and conjure a mysterious atmosphere well but little meat to the bones actually emerges. Notions of faith and sexuality, colonialism and power percolate around but none really coalesce and make us care about any of these characters so I found it all quite unengaging.

A quality ensemble of Gina McKee, Rosie Cavaliero, Patsy Ferran and Karen Bryson support Gemma Arterton and Aisling Franciosi as the rivalling Sisters Clodagh and Ruth. Alessandro Nivola looks fine in some riding boots and the late Dame Diana Rigg cameos memorably in the first episode. But I’d struggle to recommend this to be brutally honest.

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