There are two ways of looking at Black Narcissus (BBC One). You could say it’s a complex exploration of colonialism, religious dogma and the dangers of suppressing individual desire. Or, alternatively: two nuns go mad over a man.
Sister Ruth and Sister Clodagh both went weak at the knees for handsome Mr Dean. Clodagh (Gemma Arterton) managed to keep her feelings under control, albeit with the revelation that she became a nun because – of course! – she’d been dumped by her boyfriend. Ruth (Aisling Franciosi) went fully bonkers, although admittedly she was half-way there before she arrived in the Himalayas.
The most incendiary scene in the 1947 Powell and Pressburger film was Kathleen Byron as Ruth applying that slash of scarlet lipstick after casting off her habit. Screenwriter Amanda Coe recreated it here, but what a letdown. What gave the original its power was that Ruth painted her lips while Clodagh looked in with a mixture of horror and longing, yearning for the womanhood she left behind when she joined the order. But here it was done for the viewer’s benefit alone.
It added to the sense that this mini-series didn’t quite go all-in. The farewell between Clodagh and Mr Dean (Alessandro Nivola) had an emotional pull that was missing from their earlier scenes.
The finale still packed quite a lot in. Jim Broadbent appeared for no discernible reason. Gina McKee turned up with a face like a wet weekend. Poor Kanchi (Dipika Kunwar) was whipped after the discovery of her clandestine affair with Dilip Rai (Chaneil Kular).
Meanwhile, Ruth was seeing visions of Srimati Rai, who jumped to her death when the convent was a harem. Imagination or possession? Impossible to say, but screenwriter Amanda Coe kept ramping up this ghost story element. In the final showdown, Clodagh and Ruth grappled at the top of the bell tower and Ruth came off worse. Had the people who built this place never thought of railings?
Looking back over the three episodes, a couple of things niggled. Why cast an actress of the calibre of the late Dame Diana Rigg (as Mother Superior) and give her so little to do? What happened to the subplot about the angry villagers supposedly poised to storm the convent over the death of their baby?
The BBC was always on a hiding to nothing in remaking a Powell and Pressburger classic. It certainly didn’t disgrace itself, and plenty of viewers will never have seen the original. But you can either produce an original take on something, or pay reverent homage. This fell somewhere between the two.