Agnes of God (1985): Jewison Convent Melodrama, Starring Anne Bancroft, Jane Fonda, Meg Tilly

Set in a Canadian convent, Norman Jewison’s hysterical melodrama concerns a young nun (Meg Tilly), who has given birth and then murdered her baby.

 

Grade: B (** out of *****)

 

Agnes of God
Agnes moviep.jpg

Theatrical release poster

Playwright John Pielmeyer adapted to the big screen his long-running religious mystery play, which premiered On Broadway in 1982, with a stellar cast, consisting of Geraldine Page, Elizabeth Ashley, and Amanda Plummer (who was Tony Award nominated for the Best Supporting Actress).

The opening scene is quite promising. In a Roman Catholic convent in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, during evening prayers, the nuns hear screams from the room of Sister Agnes, a young novice. Agnes is found bleeding, and in a basket, Mother Superior Miriam finds a dead infant.

Sister Agnes is suspected of killing the baby, so psychiatrist Martha Livingston is assigned by a court to determine if she is competent to stand trial.

Agnes claims she does not remember being pregnant or giving birth, showing lack of understanding of how babies are conceived. Mother Miriam tells Livingston that Agnes is an “innocent” who was kept at home by her mother and knows nothing about the world. She is desperate to keep Agnes naive, and declares that she could not have known what pregnancy was or remember the father.

Livingston obtains two court orders to put Agnes under hypnosis. Mother Miriam admits that she knew Agnes was pregnant and put the wastebasket in her room, but denies she killed the baby.

Under hypnosis, Agnes reveals that on the night Sister Marie-Paul died, she told Agnes she had seen “Him” from the bell tower and directed Agnes to meet “Him” in the barn.  Agnes exhibits stigmata in her hands, and declares that “He” raped her, and that she hates God for it. She admits that Mother Miriam was present when the baby was born, but then left briefly; whereupon Agnes killed the child believing that, like herself, the baby was a “mistake.”

In the end, Agnes is found not guilty by reason of insanity and returned to the convent. She tells the judge that she heard “Him” singing beneath her bedroom window for six nights in a row, and then on the seventh night he lay on top of her.

The chief joy is to see Jane Fonda, as the investigating psychiatrist Dr. Martha Livingston, and Anne Bancroft as mother superior Miriam Ruth, sharing the same screen together for the first and only time.

For some reasons, the producer cast Bancroft in a role that was originated in the theater by Geraldine Page.

Seen from today’s perspective, it’s amazing to observe Fonda’s Livingston chain-smoking, and at one point, sharing a cigarette with Bancroft’s character.

The film is well mounted, with good production design from Ken Adam and sharp cinematography from Sven Nykvist. But in the end, you feel manipulated by the sensationalistic elements (confessions and revelations) of the work, which amount to little cumulative emotional effect.

Oscar Nominations: 3

Actress: Anne Bancroft

Supporting Actress: Meg Tilly

Original Score: Georges Delerue

 

Oscar Context

In 1985, the Best Actress Oscar went to Geraldine Page for “The Trip to Bountiful” and the Best Supporting Actress to Anjelica Huston for “Prizzi’s Honor.”

John Barry won the Score Oscar for “Out of Africa,” which swept most of the awards, including Best Picture.

Credits:

Directed by Norman Jewison
Screenplay by John Pielmeier, based on his play Agnes of God
Produced by Norman Jewison, Patrick J. Palmer

Cinematography Sven Nykvist
Edited by Antony Gibbs
Music by Georges Delerue
Distributed by Columbia Pictures

Release date: August 21, 1985

Running time: 99 minutes
Box office $25.6 million