Agnes of God
- Jane Fonda as Dr. Martha Livingston
- Anne Bancroft as Mother Miriam Ruth
- Meg Tilly as Sister Agnes
Agnes of God is part religious drama and part mystery surrounding strange event involving a naive nun that happen in a quiet Montreal convent. Although the film at times has a few flaws and unanswered questions, it still remains a rewarding and dramatic watch thanks to the three principal performances of Jane Fonda, Anne Bancroft and Meg Tilly and the atmospheric music that accompanies it. This is a film that will leave you thinking long and hard after the credits have finished rolling.
The film begins with the nuns of the Montreal convent going about their daily duties such as praying and helping with the land. As night approaches, the serenity and relative stillness of the convent is shattered by a piercing scream from the eponymous Agnes’ room, she is found shortly after bloodied on her floor. The audience later find out that she had given birth to a baby and allegedly strangled it to death. This is when Dr. Martha Livingston a psychiatrist is introduced into the story as the one to find out what really happened. She goes to the convent where she is greeted by Mother Miriam Ruth, the Mother Superior of the convent. The two immediately clash as a result of their conflicting beliefs, Mother Miriam secretive and disapproving of psychiatry and Martha suspicious because of her atheist belief and a past incident that led her to resent the church and religion altogether. The most curious aspect of the unusual case is that Agnes does not have any recollection of conceiving the child or indeed giving birth to it. Also none of the other nuns even knew that Agnes was pregnant in the first place. More to the point, the childlike, naive and beatific Agnes is completely unaware of where babies come from and the ways of the world. Martha then attempts to break through to the intense and devout nun and find out what really happened to her. Did Agnes really conceive a child with another man? Or is it something much deeper than that?
As a mystery the film has its moments of shock and a twist or two, but sometimes isn’t always clear enough on certain aspects of the story and leaves plot holes at various points. But as a drama, the film succeeds on a number of levels as the tension and anxiety surrounding the case begin to grow. As the chain-smoking, forthright psychiatrist, Jane Fonda is excellent especially in her scenes with the dependable Anne Bancroft as Mother Superior, who she has amazing chemistry and believability with. Throughout the film, the two clash over the best way to get through to Agnes, but at the same time they rely on each other for information and at times guidance. Bancroft is superb as the secretive, wise and clipped Mother Superior, but beneath it all she emerges as something completely different from what she at first appears to be. But the real stand out performance from the troika of gifted actresses is Meg Tilly as the naive, young novice Agnes. Tilly imbues the character of Agnes with childlike mannerisms and seemingly angelic demeanor, the audience is never really sure what to think of her because of the intense and thoughtful characterisation that Tilly creates. Could this sheltered young nun, with no knowledge of the outside world have really conceived a child and then killed it? It is the little nuances of the character such as her quiet almost whisper of a voice, devout behaviour and beatific smiles that make her so interesting and compelling in the story.
The look is the film should rightly be praised, the cold and sometimes eerie convent cast over in dark colours. The cinematography of Ingmar Bergman regular Sven Nykvist helps accentuate the atmospheric and holy aspects of the story. The music that underscores the film helps back up the themes of religion but also of doubt and suspicion that pervades the mood of the film. All in all, the film can be puzzling and mind-boggling at times but as a showcase for the talented players of the story it scores very highly indeed. Norman Jewison manages to create a thoughtful yet dramatic and compelling story set in the most unlikely of surroundings.