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Inside an isolated convent during the dead of night, an ethereal young nun, Sister Agnes (Meg Tilly), secretly gives birth to a baby after hiding her pregnancy for nine months in the 1985 drama Agnes of God. When the newborn is discovered dead soon after the delivery, Agnes becomes the object of a criminal investigation. A court appointed psychiatrist, Dr. Martha Livingston (Jane Fonda), is assigned to look into the unusual case and determine whether or not Sister Agnes is mentally competent to stand trial for the murder of her baby. Agnes' Mother Superior (Anne Bancroft) tells Dr. Livingston that Agnes is a pure soul and the child was a miracle from God. However, the cynical Dr. Livingston isn't buying it. Did someone take advantage of Agnes, or was it another immaculate conception? Together the woman of faith (Bancroft) and the woman of reason (Fonda) try to figure out the truth of what really happened to Sister Agnes. In his 2004 autobiography This Terrible Business Has Been Good to Me director Norman Jewison describes the story of Agnes of God as "the struggle between Freudian logic and Catholic faith. The film would test our ability to believe in miracles."
Agnes of God began as a play by John Pielmeier, who also wrote the screenplay. It opened on Broadway in 1982 and starred Geraldine Page as the Mother Superior, Elizabeth Ashley as the psychiatrist, and Amanda Plummer as Sister Agnes, who won a Tony award for her highly praised performance.
Norman Jewison was already familiar with the play before it hit Broadway. He thought it was "brilliant" and that writer John Peilmeier was "one of the really talented young playwrights in New York." When he decided to make the film, he already had Jane Fonda in mind to play Dr. Livingston and hired her right away. "Jane Fonda would be fabulous," he told then Columbia Pictures president Guy McElwaine. "She is strong-willed, no-nonsense, a great star."
When the word got out that he was casting for Agnes of God, Jewison received a phone call from actress Anne Bancroft telling him that she wanted to play the Mother Superior character. "When I said I'd get back to her," recalls Jewison in his autobiography, "she persisted: 'I'm married to a director, I know that none of you know how to make up your minds. I'm going to help you with the decision.'" He told her that she was too young and beautiful for the part. "For me," he told Bancroft, "you'll always be Mrs. Robinson. You're sexy, sensual...I don't see you as a Mother Superior, Anne." To that, Bancroft hung up the phone and told him that she was coming over to his office right that minute.
"Twenty minutes later," says Jewison, "Anne Bancroft swept in, pulled up a chair, sat down, leaned across, looked me in the eye, and said, 'So this is Mrs. Robinson? Look at these lines. Look at me.' She wore no makeup, she was pale, there were dark half-moons under her eyes." Jewison, who happened to have a nun's habit costume in his office, asked her to put it on. "So there we were, five minutes later, Anne in the wimple and veil, both of us staring into the meanly lighted mirror, her hair and lovely hands covered by the nun's habit," he recalls, "and I realized she would be a superb Mother Miriam Ruth in Agnes of God."
Meg Tilly, who had previously garnered praise for her performance in The Big Chill (1983), was Jewison's choice to play Sister Agnes. Having once compared her screen presence to that of Audrey Hepburn's, Jewison describes Tilly in his autobiography as "a classic beauty and an accomplished actress...She also had the wide-eyed innocence of the young nun...In the courtroom there is a moment of complete pathos where she has lost-not her life-but her mind, and she carried it off more convincingly than anyone else could have done."
The play of Agnes of God had been staged very sparsely with just the three actresses on a blank stage. Jewison, a native Canadian, decided to open the play up for the film and set the action specifically at a convent in Quebec. "The atmosphere in Quebec," he explains, "was steeped in Catholic mysticism; it was a place where miracles were still expected to happen."
Agnes of God was shot entirely on location in Canada during the dead of winter. This appealed to Jewison because it gave him the chance to not only be on his home turf, but also to use a Canadian crew and have his wife and three children nearby as well. The former Rockwood Academy for Boys in Ontario was transformed by Production Designer Ken Adam into the convent. Longtime Ingmar Bergman cinematographer Sven Nykvist photographed the film, capturing some gorgeous images of the bleak Canadian winter that provides a stunning backdrop to the compelling drama.
Reviews at the time were generally positive, with praise heaped on Bancroft, Fonda and Tilly for their strong work in three very different and demanding parts. "Bancroft gives a generally highly engaging performance as a religious woman too knowledgeable to be one-upped by even the craftiest layman," said Variety. "Tilly is angelically beautiful as the troubled youngster and brings a convincing innocence and sincerity to the role that would be hard to match." Time magazine said, "All three stars do smart, honorable work: Tilly, her childlike faith traumatized by the rude stirrings of womanhood; Fonda, the reluctant exorcist fiercely questioning her old God and, no less, herself; and Bancroft, a strict but up-to-date nun, with reserves of iron and irony." Bancroft and Tilly both received Academy Award nominations for their work, as did Georges Delerue for his haunting musical score.
The gripping mystery of Agnes of God will keep viewers riveted and resonate long after the film is over. For Norman Jewison, the film gave him a chance to explore some deeply personal issues. "I think most people, regardless of their religion, regardless of logic, want to believe in something outside of their everyday lives. Outside of themselves," he says in his autobiography. "Agnes of God gave me the opportunity to explore that timeless human conflict between believing what we can see and believing what we can't see or experience. It seemed to me then, as it does now, that the world is in dire need of angels."
Producers: Norman Jewison, Patrick Palmer
Director: Norman Jewison
Screenplay: John Pielmeier (screenplay and play)
Cinematography: Sven Nykvist
Art Direction: Carol Spier
Music: Georges Delerue
Film Editing: Antony Gibbs
Cast: Jane Fonda (Dr. Martha Livingston), Anne Bancroft (Mother Miriam Ruth), Meg Tilly (Sister Agnes), Anne Pitoniak (Dr. Livingston's mother), Winston Rekert (Detective Langevin), Gratien Gelinas (Father Martineau), Guy Hoffman (Justice Joseph Leveau), Gabriel Arcand (Monsignor), Francoise Faucher (Eve LeClaire).
C-95m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.
by Andrea Passafiume