Producer-director Norman Jewison is getting to be an expert on adapting hit Broadway shows into movies. Back in the 1970s, he made two religious musicals, Fiddler on the Roof and Jesus Christ Superstar.
Now, on the heels of last year’s A Soldier’s Story, Jewison is dipping into religion again. Agnes of God is adapted from John Pielmeier’s Tony award-winning play about the investigation surrounding a young nun and the murder of her baby.
Pielmeier’s play tackles such issues as faith in a godless world, the secular community vs. the religious community, and the state of mother-daughter relationships in a modern world. Jewison, being no dummy, manages to couch these heavy themes within the framework of a detective story, as a court psychiatrist (Jane Fonda) conducts a step-by-step investigation of the crime. Jewison used much the same structure in A Soldier’s Story.
Jewison is basically up to his old tricks – he unloads a big revelation every 15 minutes to keep us interested, and the characters come dangerously close to being cardboard figures who represent ideas. Fonda is modern faithlessness; the mother superior (Anne Bancroft) of the convent where the murder took place is nostalgia for past beliefs; and the accused nun (Meg Tilly) is innocence and true faith.
But this is a more enjoyable movie than A Soldier’s Story, and I think it’s because Jewison got genuinely excited about the subject matter. He seems to think he’s making an Ingmar Bergman movie – all this stuff about sexual hysteria in a convent, the crises in faith, are reminiscent of Bergman at his enigmatic best. Jewison even hired Bergman’s longtime collaborator, cinematographer Sven Nykvist, to photograph the film.
Nykvist was a shrewd choice – he captures a stark look in the convent and the surrounding landscape (shot in Ontario) that seems to echo the spiritual hollowness of most of the people in the film.
The other thing that makes Agnes of God passably interesting is the creepily intense performance by Meg Tilly. Her character was apparently unaware that she was pregnant (and her roomy nun’s robes hid it from the other nuns), and when Fonda questions her about the pregnancy, Tilly professes no knowledge of how babies are conceived or born. In fact, she states simply that she doesn’t believe in the dead baby at all, since she doesn’t remember seeing it. Tilly’s angelic face and babylike voice are perfect for the role, and her absolutely unblinking faith is very convincing; as we later find out, it is the product of a tormented childhood.
By the time the last few dramatic scenes roll around, Tilly has really gotten under your skin, and the film becomes much more effective than in the early scenes. Also, Jewison seems intrigued by Pielmeier’s ambiguous solution to the mystery, and presents it in persuasive fashion.
Which is not to say that the film, overall, is not a bunch of high-minded hooey. It is, but credit Tilly and Jewison for making the ending effectively spooky.
First published in The Herald, September 26, 1985
In the Heat of the Night was a murder mystery too, so Jewison was true to his groove. Pielmeier has done a lot of TV movies, including Gifted Hands: The Ben Carson Story. Bancroft and Tilly were both Oscar-nominated for this, as was composer Georges Delerue. This film was in Meg Tilly’s first rush of stardom, and well before her withdrawal from acting.