A group of ill-prepared British nuns attempt to establish a convent in a possibly cursed palace on top of a Himalayan mountain in the 1930s – what could go wrong?
Answer: A lot, in the physical and metaphysical fields. However, FX’s Monday broadcast Black narcissus, a limited series by Amanda Coe (BBC One’s Christine Keeler’s trial), takes her time to let us know that the valiant women trying to secure an outpost for their order are over their heads clad in marshmallows. (Editor’s Note: This recap covers the first hour of the three-part drama.)
The series, which is based on Rumer Godden’s 1939 novel, opens with the camera wandering around a stately home in Mopu, Himalayas, in 1914. There are people everywhere, all seeming to be having a great time… except a screaming baby in a bedroom, and a young woman (maybe the child’s mother?) also in tears nearby. When an older woman comes in to take care of the baby, the distraught woman flees the room and quickly climbs a precarious staircase to the side of the building; the wind whips her hair as she lowers her eyes. The palace is carved out of a cliff, which means that a misstep on the stairs means she will fly until her death. Going up to a steeple, however, it looks like it might be her desire: when she reaches the highest point of the palace, just before the scene fades, it certainly looks like she’s about to jump.
Twenty years later, Sister Clodagh (Gemma Arterton, Lost in Austen) is the youngest sister superior of the religious order of Sainte-Foi. When Father Roberts (Jim Broadbent, The iron Throne) is too ill to travel, Clodagh champions on foot to lead a delegation of sisters from Darjeeling to set up a convent and school in the palace, which once housed the mistresses of a wealthy man and whose son of this man, a general, donated to the church. Mother Dorothea (Diana Rigg, The iron Throne) warns Clodagh that she is too ambitious, but grants her permission to go and take sisters Briony, Philippa, Blanche and Ruth (The iron Throne‘Aisling Franciosi) with her.
After an arduous journey over breathtaking terrain, the women arrive in Mopu. From the start, the place is strange. The still whistling wind blows windows and doors open without warning. Sister Ruth seems to hear whispers in the corners, even when no one is around. And Angu Ayah (Nila Aalia, A discovery of witches), who serves as a palace attendant and was the woman we saw looking after the baby 20 years ago, says the strangeness is in no one’s mind: the ghost of Princess Srimati, aka the woman about to jump in flashback, is “hungry” and definitely hangs out in the palace.
Clodagh is determined to take her chances, which means she has to rely on the General’s cynical and brash right-hand man at times, Mr. Dean (Alessandro Nivola, Doll and Em) to repair the building’s plumbing and facilitate relations with residents. Dean and Clodagh’s verbal fights are very opposite; Is it any wonder she starts having flashbacks to her pre-convent life – with skinny dips and kisses from a man who asked her never to cut his hair – soon after they met? (As part of Clodagh’s wishes, she and her sisters shave their heads, don’t touch each other, and haven’t seen their reflections in mirrors in years.)
Of all of them, Sister Ruth seems the most touched by being in a foreign environment. She suffers from headaches exacerbated by the altitude of the place. She worries aloud to Clodagh that the palace doesn’t want them there. And one day when she steals a look in a mirror, she sees the face of Princess Srimati just above her shoulder.
Coincidentally – or perhaps not – at exactly the same time, a local man helping with the gardening suffered a rather bloody wound to his stomach. Clodagh orders Sister Briony to take a suture kit, but Mr. Dean warns against any intervention: if the man dies, he says, the people of the neighboring village will blame the nuns. Dean also deduces that something similar happened to the German monks who tried to establish a monastery in Mopu the previous year, but abandoned the project after a few months.
Meanwhile, Ruth runs shouting at Clodagh that she just saw the princess. Clodagh has no time for the hysterics of the sidekick – there is a man is bleeding on the floor at her feet, after all – but when Ruth doesn’t stop, Clodagh slaps her to silence her. The bloody handprint of the Sister Superior is on Ruth’s cheek and habit, and the locals who have witnessed all of this really know something hinky is going on.
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