Powell and Pressburger's delirious melodrama is one of the most erotic films ever to emerge from British cinema, let alone in the repressed 1940s - it was released just two years after David Lean's Brief Encounter (1945), with its more typically 'British' story of desire denied.
Starting from a controversial novel by Rumer Godden - an Englishwoman living long-term in India - Powell and Pressburger fashioned a taut melodrama of unusually fierce passions and barely contained erotic tension. Although the script never directly challenged the strict standards of the censors, it hardly needs saying that the repressed desires of nuns was not a common - or safe - subject for a British film in 1947.
Deborah Kerr, in her third film for Powell and Pressburger (following Contraband (1940) and The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)), was nominally the star of the film, playing the emotionally detached Sister Superior, secretly tormented by memories of lost love. But it was an extraordinary performance from the barely-known Kathleen Byron as the deranged Sister Ruth which really stood out. Byron had played an angel in A Matter of Life and Death (d. Powell, Pressburger, 1946), but there was nothing in that role which suggested that she was capable of a performance of such furious intensity.
David Farrar took the role of the agent, Dean, full of macho swagger, and the catalyst for Sister Ruth's madness. It was the first of three parts for Powell and Pressburger, and anticipated his lusty, malevolent squire in Gone to Earth (1950). Among the supporting roles were Sabu, in his first work with Powell since Thief of Bagdad (1940), and an 18 year-old Jean Simmons, fresh from her success in Great Expectations (d. David Lean, 1946), as an native temptress.
In its depiction of young women torn between duty and passion, Black Narcissus has common elements with the Archers' next film The Red Shoes (1948), while its evocation of the mystical power of landscape and geography positions it in a line of Powell's work which includes The Edge of the World (1937), "I Know Where I'm Going!" (1944) and A Canterbury Tale (1945).
With the help of designer Alfred Junge and cinematographer Jack Cardiff - both rewarded with Oscars - Powell convincingly created a Himalayan convent on a Pinewood soundstage, lending the proceedings a tense, claustrophobic atmosphere. An oppressive jungle scene was filmed in a Kent tropical garden.