Based on a Broadway hit, Agnes of God concerns a nun who is accused of murdering her newborn baby. A psychiatrist appointed by the court must determine if Sister Agnes is insane or not. But, as the Mother Superior of the convent points out, Agnes is not the typical person, or even the typical nun. She seems almost incredibly naive, and perhaps she really is a holy innocent, close to God in a way more appropriate to the Middle Ages than today. Or is she merely insane? The psychiatrist, a lapsed Catholic with grievances against the church, is determined to probe deep to find out, while the Mother Superior, in desperate need of a focus for her shaky faith, is equally determined that Sister Agnes' simple piety will not be destroyed.
Agnes of God is the typically talky modern play, with endless quarrels and discussions between the Mother Superior and the psychiatrist, who are too simple representations of Faith and Science (definitely with capital letters). Modern playwrights seem to have lost the knack of capturing action on stage, and have fallen back completely on talk. Much of the talk is well written, but too much is said and too little done. Unfortunately, this isn't the only flaw in the script. John Pielmeier, who also wrote the original play, fails to provide a very clear focus or attitude for Jewison to work with. A strong director, such as Francis Coppola, who wanted to do Agnes of God could overcome both flaws, the first with better visual sense, something that was never Jewison's strong point, and the second with a unifying vision of his own. Jewison has nothing to say, and, except for an isolated moment or two, no especially interesting visual ideas.
One of the script's strong points, on the other hand, is in characters, at least in two of them. For practical purposes, Agnes of God has only the three characters. All others have only brief appearances, most for strictly functional purposes. The psychiatrist is not very well realized, nor very well played, by Jane Fonda. Pielmeier ripped off Peter Shaffer's use (in Equus of cigarettes as a symbol of the character's internal emptiness, but he provides little else for Fonda to work with. The Mother Superior is much more human, with an inner conflict which almost works. Anne Bancroft does well with the part, making the nun a wry and surprisingly worldly woman who yearns for personal knowledge of God.
The real strength of the film is in the character of Agnes and the performance of Meg Tilly. At first, Agnes seems childlike and simple, but her depths are unexpectedly complex. The interesting mystery isn't who killed the baby, but what motivates Agnes and what shaped her. If the conflicts of the psychiatrist and Mother Superior had been better integrated with the revelations of what makes Agnes so different, the film would have been much better. Meg Tilly is superb in the part. Her face has a radiant innocence, and her every move and word subtly shows us the turbulence beneath the calm surface. Amanda Plummer made a sensation on Broadway playing the part in a very different way, but Tilly fits so naturally into Agnes that it is hard to imagine anyone else playing the part, or having the part played in any other way. Nothing else Meg Tilly has done suggested the power and depth she reveals in this part, and it is likely to provide the breakthrough she needs to become a major film actress. Her performance is also likely to be remembered when Academy Award nominations are being decided.
The other reason to see Agnes of God is Sven Nykvist's cinematography. Nykvist has been Ingmar Bergman's director of photography for years. Nykvist uses a warm juxtaposition of light and shadow that is distinctly his own. Most at home in the voluptuous summer light of Swedish summers, Nykvist adapts well to the bleak Canadian winter. He chooses mostly dark compositions from his palette, with characteristic fondness for rays of light and portentous shadows. Any individual scene of Agnes of God looks absolutely wonderful, and Nykvist's lighting and framing of scenes makes up, to an extent, for Jewison's deficiencies. A second viewing of the film, with the intention to watch specifically Nykvist's use of light and shadow to heighten mood, would reveal even more clearly that Nykvist not only has a fine eye, but a deft intelligence.
Agnes of God is a film with high intentions, but not quite enough resources to live up to its own goals. Jewison doesn't provide much suspense for the putative mystery, nor does he make clear to the audience precisely what he thinks Agnes of God is supposed to be about at any deeper level. He conceals the theatrical origins in one sense, by moving around the convent and other settings with some facility, but doesn't hide that the film is mostly talk and little action. The talk, lacking a good, clear purpose, becomes talk for its own sake. As such, it is moderately interesting, but an insufficient basis for a film. Anne Bancroft and, especially, Meg Tilly, bring life and energy to their scenes, but Jane Fonda is practically a void at the center of the film. On the whole, Agnes of God is a suitable entertainment for those tired of juvenile summer trash, but is hardly a film event of great significance.
Back to the review list.