Friday, August 21, 2015

'Agnes of God' Came Up Short

"Smoking is an obsession with me. Maybe someday I'll become obsessed with something else and give up smoking."

Martha (Jane Fonda)

Norman Jewison's "Agnes of God," which premiered on this date in 1985, was a difficult movie to watch — especially in the last 30 minutes. In fact, I have only seen it once. I've never been able to watch it a second time.

It was painful to watch Meg Tilly's tortured performance as a simple young woman manipulated and abused by the people in her life, much as it was painful five years earlier to watch "The Elephant Man" — yet both were ultimately rewarding. The only problem was you had to experience all that misery for the payoff to really ... pay off.

And "Agnes of God" never really paid off as handsomely as it should have. There were, I suppose, many reasons for that.

"Agnes of God" began as a stage play, and the film adaptation made little allowance for the shift to the big screen. "But that's just the beginning of this film's problems," observed Roger Ebert. "It considers, or pretends to consider, some of the most basic questions of human morality and treats them on the level of 'Nancy Drew and the Secret of the Old Convent.'"

Meg Tilly played Sister Agnes, a young nun who gives birth and allegedly kills the child, then faces manslaughter charges, which draws Jane Fonda, as a court–appointed psychiatrist, to the convent to examine Sister Agnes and her surroundings. Sister Agnes, you see, had no idea who the father might have been. She even had doubts that there had ever been a baby.

"It is never made quite clear what specific problem Sister Agnes suffers from," Ebert wrote, "but she clearly has parts on order."

Still, it was Tilly's riveting performance enabled "Agnes of God" to rise above the mediocre in its pursuit of its objective — establishing that miracles do happen. The material may have produced, in Ebert's words, "a very badly confused movie. ..."

However, "(g)iven dialogue that sounds as if it were written to be read, given characters who consistently avoid asking the obvious questions, given a story that refuses to declare what it is about, [Anne] Bancroft, Fonda and Tilly use their craft to give the illusion that they know where they stand. It is service in a lost cause."

The acting really deserved to be recognized, and it was. It received three Oscar nominations. Two were for acting; the third was for Best Original Score.

Bancroft was nominated for Best Actress but lost to Geraldine Page. I thought Tilly really should have been nominated for Best Actress — not necessarily at the expense of Bancroft, who was great, as always — but she was nominated for Best Supporting Actress — and lost to Anjelica Huston.

Fonda turned in her usual workmanlike performance and received no nomination. She had already won two Oscars, anyway.