Thursday, July 16, 2009

Nuns, of the Lusty Variety

Prolific Oscar nominee Meryl Streep, who turned sixty last month, was the last woman to be nominated for portraying a nun. Along with Amy Adams she's the latest in a long line of women to wear the habit, to name but a few: Ingrid Bergman in The Bells of St. Mary's, Susan Sarandon's victorious turn in Dead Man Walking, and possibly most famously Whoopi Goldberg as showgirl-turned-saint Sister Mary Clarence in the Sister Act series. Deborah Kerr famously played two on-screen nuns, first in Black Narcissus (1947) and secondly opposite Robert Mitchum in Heaven Knows, Mr Allison (1957)(for the latter she received an Oscar nomination and both performances earned her the top prize from the New York Film Critics).

Despite both roles requiring Deborah to express an introspective grapple with the constr
aints of each nun's commitment to God the two roles require much different work from her. John Huston's Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison initially bothered me rather a lot; Mitchum as a WWII navy Corporal gets washed up on a desert island (presumably somewhere near Japan) where he meets the sole inhabitant, Kerr's Sister Angela. She appears indifferent towards his arrival, perplexed even, yet the following weeks see them engage in what is some heavily intense interaction for people who have just met each other, allbeit in what becomes a quest for survival against Japanese attack. Questions are begged: What was Sister Angela doing before his arrival? Making cups of green tea and playing Patience? How has the solitude affected her? How does she react to no longer being alone?

This is another African Queen, breezy and bright, treading lightly over old ground in the culture clash/missionary propaganda/opposites attract fun of its predecessor, but it is rather maddening that Huston's film seems so unconcerned with its characters adaptation into a wild unknown. Instead we're treated to a kind of moral compromise (one that takes way too long), whereby Allison learns to think carefully and have faith and Angela is encouraged to let loose and pay more attention to what's going on around her. Kerr demonstrates the naivety of Angela with silly Irish broad that articulates either her worrisome distress -- "Ohhhh, Mister Aaaaaalison" -- or the kind of uptight matronly banter she's stripped of by the time the closing credits roll.

The film's killer scene occurs fairly late on, and is the closest thing that Heaven Knows gets to displaying the primal nakedness of the characters' desires and frustrations. Responding to Mitchum's drunken petulance over a draughts game, which is blatantly leading to darker and more sinister advances, Kerr's hesitant mustering of the line "You don't want to play draughts?" is both blackly hilarious and scarily resilient. Despite previously denying any feeling for Allison her desperation to preserve his integrity in her mind is rather astounding, and Kerr completely nails this part of Angela, and in the process helps to make Heaven Knows a much more fluid, natural and worthwhile exercise.

Aside from this scene, Kerr is given an altogether fluffier arc than she was in Black Narcissus (a decade earlier) where Sister Clodagh, and her feelings for the local totty Mr. Dean, are decidedly less lucid. Clodagh (a much more impersonal and mysterious moniker as it is) sums up the relative inpenatrability of the woman herself, who uses her habit as more of a hiding place, a reserved place of judgement. Given a quest to set up a nunnery up in the cloudy peaks of the Himalayas, Clodagh's Mother Superior voices her concerns over whether the young nun is emotionally secure and selfless enough to succeed.

Black Narcissus is gorgeous; eery, mythical, alien, and its estrangement from civilisation re-enforces the idea of this place as independent of 'life', free of context, suspended in time. It is Clodagh's job to stay grounded and remind her nuns that they are still under God's watchful eye, even though she too is becoming more enamoured with the place and less reliant upon religion. Her main focus is upon reforming the "ill" Sister Ruth, who it has presumed has been questioning her commitment to the cause before the journey through the mountains. Told to "spare her some of your own importance... if you can" by the Mother Superior (yes, the film is rather bitchy) you can see Kerr trying to maintain the immovable composure and morality in a way of regressing to a default state of mind. But as familiarity and rigid practice make Clodagh an unpopular figure in the mountains (particularly among a certain man) she has to rethink her methods.

Kerr never really explodes emotively but depicts the bubbling pot through irksome discomfort, and confirms without ever admitting so that she isn't enough of an evolved person to cope with her own desire for freedom, never mind the wandering outlook of her cloaked clan. This reaches a messy head with the elemental Sister Ruth (played fiercely and brilliantly by Kathleen Byron), who seeks to make Clodagh pay for her loosening affections for Mr. Dean, whom she also has an eye for. Ruth is treated as a mental basket case but ends up being the most valuable and emotionally in-touch member of the film, angry of attempts to suppress her, clear in her love for Dean, aware of her leader's hypocrisy and fatefully jealous of it. Kerr is more wise to this than one might first think, and as Narcissus reaches a bitter climax she understands Clodagh's relief at exiting the situation with her authority intact, however compromised her moral position has become.

Heaven Knows Mr. Allison - B-
Deborah Kerr - ***

Black Narcissus - B+
Deborah Kerr - ****

1 comment:

Alex in Movieland said...

I read just the 1st part, because I haven't seen Black Narcissus and I don't want to spoil it or in fact really know what it's about. :)

yeah, the screenplay doesn't give her all and just as I said: had it not been for Deborah, the role would've been a total bore.