It’s not often that I want to see more episodes of a miniseries. The more common flaw these days is an episode or two of filler mixed in with the good stuff, to keep the binge super bingey, I suppose, ultimately softening the impact of the whole. Sure, 12 episodes of “Normal People” was great; but 10 might have been even better. So “Black Narcissus,” a new adaptation of Rumer Godden’s 1939 novel, arrives as an exception. It is succinct and well-told in the three hour-long episodes all due Monday at 8 p.m. on FX (and the next day on Hulu). But there are characters and themes that certainly could have benefited from intelligent expansion. Godden’s story of British nuns starting a mission in the Himalayas during the latter years of British rule in India has buried riches to spare.
Gemma Arterton stars as Sister Clodagh, played by Deborah Kerr in the 1947 film. Young and ambitious, she leads the handful of women to Mopu, to a palace donated by a general who hopes to cleanse the decaying family building of its tragic past as a “House of Women,” where his ancestors kept concubines. Her Mother Superior (played by the late Diana Rigg) allows her to head up the new order of nuns warily, unsure about Clodagh’s strength of will. She can sense that Clodagh — no matter how driven she appears — remains rattled by memories of the affair that drove her to become a nun in the first place, images of which emerge more and more in her mind as the story progresses. Arterton fits the role nicely; she’s severe enough, but also sympathetic as she begins to understand her own pride.
The palace requires lots of work, but the surroundings are breathtaking, perched on what seems like the end of the earth. Written by Amanda Coe and directed by Charlotte Bruus Christensen, “Black Narcissus” captures the stark beauty, the loneliness, and the threatening forces that haunt the location. Thrown into this natural thin-aired world filled with people of other religions, the sisters — along with Clodagh, there’s Sister Ruth (Aisling Franciosi), Sister Briony (Rosie Cavaliero), Sister Philippa (Karen Bryson), and Sister Blanche (Patsy Ferran) — all begin to lose their bearings. Ruth, in particular, is increasingly tormented, whether it’s meant to be a supernatural haunting by the ghost of a woman from an earlier time at the castle, or whether it’s mental illness, it’s sometimes hard to tell.
The women rely heavily on the general’s man, a Brit named Mr. Dean, played with swagger by Alessandro Nivola. Mr. Dean is far from reverent about Christianity, and his cynicism and coarseness bother Clodagh. But then Clodagh also appears to be attracted to Dean, whom she accidently espies after he’s just had a sexual encounter. Dean understands the local community, and tries to guide her, but she is blinded by her resistance to him. She controls her attraction; Ruth, who is also smitten, has a much harder time containing her temptation, looking at Dean with open lust. Ruth’s growing hostility and misbehavior toward the order alarm Clodagh, but when her elders — Father Roberts (Jim Broadbent) and Sister Adela (Gina McKee) — arrive to see how it’s all going, they fail to see a problem.
The situation is fascinating, as primitive feelings encroach on the nuns. They cling to their civilized manners and their religious doctrines in a place that is deaf to them. What each of the nuns goes through in this mysterious place could have been developed some, along with a more complex look into what happens when women turn on one another in a realm that has been defined by men. Also, an essential subplot involving a connection between the general’s nephew and Dean’s attractive ward is given woefully short shrift. Sure, three episodes of “Black Narcissus” is great, but I suspect that four might have been even better.
Starring: Gemma Arterton, Alessandro Nivola, Diana Rigg, Jim Broadbent, Rosie Cavaliero, Aisling Franciosi, Nila Aalia, Patsy Ferran
On: FX. All three parts air Monday night at 8. They will become available on Hulu on Tuesday.