Gemma Arterton as Sister Clodagh in ‘Black Narcissus’
Gemma Arterton as Sister Clodagh in ‘Black Narcissus’ © FX/Miya Mizuno

It might not be possible to improve on perfection, but you can tweak it a little and make it your own. Powell and Pressburger’s 1947 adaptation of Rumer Godden’s novel is a morbid classic of repressed female sexuality, the torrid tale of the doomed efforts of a coterie of Catholic nuns to found a convent school in the Himalayas.

Shooting on studio sets at Pinewood rather than on location gave the movie a painterly, ethereal quality highly suited to the dreamlike action and subjective focus. This was an India of the European psyche, not the real deal, which remained, for the anguished Sisters, forever out of reach. 

The BBC’s lavish new adaptation, running over three nights, was partly filmed in Nepal, as well as, pleasingly, Pinewood again. The immediate question is whether sweeping drone shots and backdrops of real mountains add much to the atmosphere. Not a huge amount, it has to be said. Draughty Mopu palace, high on a precipice, feels familiar in its sinister ambience.

Sister Clodagh (Gemma Arterton), the youngest Sister Superior in the order, is tasked with renovating the decrepit structure. The first job really ought to be to put up a balustrade on that perilous staircase and fence in the vertiginous bell-tower perched on the edge of the void. 

The general whose palace it is has also donated the services of his surly factotum, rugged Mr Dean, who is well primed to rumple some wimples. In a shocking departure from the film, fully-trousered Alessandro Nivola opts not to sport the manly shorts that were such a feature of David Farrar’s original performance.

One thing had to be updated: the original use of white actors in blackface in Indian roles. Nila Aalia as the brooding custodian Angu Ayah, Kulvinder Ghir as the general, and Dipika Kunwar as Kanchi (Jean Simmons in the original) are excellent, with Chaneil Kular a beguiling Dilip Rai, the pearl-laden princeling fond of dousing himself in the titular fragrance. Soumil Malla is delightful as boy servant Joseph Anthony. In a remarkable example of colour-blind casting, Wayne Llewellyn plays the meditating sannyasi who proves so unsettling to Sister Clodagh. 

But how, you ask, could anyone match up to Kathleen Byron’s unhinged performance, one of the most memorable on celluloid, as Sister Clodagh’s nemesis Sister Ruth? By casting much younger actresses in these pivotal roles, director Charlotte Bruus Christensen opts for a gentler, more psychological, less melodramatic take on their clashes. Aisling Franciosi builds Sister Ruth’s smouldering rage with great subtlety and a physically expressed sense of hidden emotional pain.

High praise also goes to Rosie Cavaliero as practical Sister Briony, and Patsy Ferran, whose vivid features act their way right out from under that veil. As for Arterton and Nivola, it’s a three-hankie finale, for sure.

★★★★★

On BBC1 at 9pm, December 27-29, and on FX in the US

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