September 09, 1985 12:00 PM

As an event in the Broadway theater, Agnes of God was compelling drama. In a face-off between spirituality and psychiatry, three women form an unholy trinity of obsession: Agnes, a young nun with arcane ideas about sin and sex, apparently has strangled her baby after giving birth in a convent. In the legal proceeding that follows, her mother superior and her court-appointed psychatrist battle over Agnes’ welfare. “I know what you are,” says the mother superior to the shrink. “I don’t want that mind cut open.” Even Agnes tells the woman, “You want to take God away from me.” It’s Equus in skirts, but onstage the vivid performances of Elizabeth Ashley, Geraldine Page and Amanda Plummer camouflaged the drama’s secondhand sensibility. In converting his play to the screen, writer John Pielmeier has set the story in Quebec and spoiled the cloisterphobia of his work with obligatory exterior scenes. Thus transformed, Agnes of God proves occasionally hypnotic, but as a movie it lacks what is a necessity for this kind of drama: a smokescreen of bravura acting. Surprisingly, the most unoriginal sins are committed by Jane Fonda, who never invests the shrink role with any of the intensity it demands. With her movie-star-plays-career-woman outfits and coifs, Fonda prizes her composure too much to play this obsessive woman. She lets Pielmeier’s one telltale bit of business—the doctor is a chain-smoker—do all her work. Consequently, while watching Agnes you recast her role with, say, Vanessa Redgrave or the young Barbara Stanwyck—actresses who might have brought an inherent passion to the part. As the mother superior, Anne Bancroft doesn’t conjure up much in the way of fervor either. So the entire emotional geometry of the movie is thrown off, yet Meg (The Big Chill) Tilly makes Agnes a mesmerizing figure. As determined in the secular world as she is ethereal, she embodies all the ambiguities and ambivalence that the script revolves around. She seems a woman of singular conviction, whose conscience seems worth the fight that Bancroft and Fonda wage over it. Still, that’s hardly enough to sustain the film. Agnes needed a director with a flair for the daring, but instead it was reined in by a master of the middlebrow, Norman (A Soldier’s Story) Jewison. Agnes of God should ask for the audience’s absolution. (R)

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