The five nuns, led by the reserved Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr), have their orders: Turn a remote Himalayan palace, once home to a king’s concubines, into a working convent that will minister to the local populace in body and spirit. That’s enough of a challenge, but there’s something truly unearthly about this place of howling winds, yawning chasms and atmosphere thick with temptation. Sanctity, it will be proven, is no match for sin.
That great duo of stylized cinema, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, shot their classic dark-comic melodrama mostly on British studio sets, and the film’s very falseness—those matte-painting vanishing perspectives and cinematographer Jack Cardiff’s harshly exaggerated lighting cues—creates a psychologically charged space in which an ungodly tragedy can unfold. You can fully sense the pervasive loneliness that entraps Sister Clodagh in distracting pangs of lost-love reminiscence, as well as the oppressive, sexually charged ambience that wreaks mental and metaphysical havoc on the frenzied Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron, doing a definitive scarlet-lettered temptress). A subplot involving an independent-minded prince played by the era’s go-to Indian actor, Sabu, speaks to the film’s potent colonialist subtext; at the time of the film’s release, England was only months from granting the Jewel in the Crown its independence. For Powell and Pressburger, the personal and the political—much like their distinctive mix of high and low artistry—weren’t separate bedfellows: Even a marvelously entertaining tale of repressed abbesses on the edge could explore, with enduring resonance and profundity, an empire losing its grip.
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