Roush Review: ‘Black Narcissus’ Is an Exotic Sister Act of Himalayan Gothic

Gemma Arterton Alessandro Nivola Black Narcissus Sister Clodagh Dean
Miya Mizuno/FX

The air may be thin, but deadly sins of pride, envy and lust create an atmosphere thick with danger and sensual intrigue in Black Narcissus, an exotic piece of Himalayan Gothic.

Rumer Godden’s provocative 1939 novel inspired an ahead-of-its-time 1947 movie starring Deborah Kerr, and now this lush if random three-hour adaptation (airing in one night). It’s the story of nuns who trek high into the Nepal mountains to open a school in an abandoned palace that was once a notorious den of ill repute.

“Keep your eyes inward, sisters,” advises the mission’s leader, Sister Clodagh (Gemma Arterton), upon their arrival — easier said than done given the breathtaking views and such distractions as the erotic pagan art on the palace walls and the guru who sits outside the grounds as a mysterious beacon. “This is an unusual place, and we should expect unusual things,” she later observes, and she’s not kidding.

Maybe it’s the setting, or the high altitude, or possibly the habit-forming presence of rakishly irreverent estate agent Mr. Dean (the swarthy Alessandro Nivola), who declares this to be “an impossible place for a nunnery,” but repressed memories and desires soon begin to stir among the good sisters. This is especially true of uptight Sister Clodagh, whose battle of wills with the unstable and headache-prone Sister Ruth (Aisling Franciosi) plays out against staggeringly gorgeous vistas.

“The heart has to work harder up this high,” warns another of the sisters about the physical toll of their enterprise. But it’s what stirs within the heart that could cause the most lasting damage to these troubled souls.

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As nuns set up a convent in Nepal, her character is in awe of the Himalayas and the handsome Mr. Dean.

Psychologically intense and erotically charged, Black Narcissus doesn’t entirely resist the temptation of lurid melodrama, but Diana Rigg brings a little dignity in one of her last roles, as the Mother Superior who sends them off. As always, she’s a blessing.

Black Narcissus, Limited Series Premiere, Monday, November 23, 8/7c, FX