Agnes of God (1985)

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Released 24-Jun-2003

Cover Art

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Details At A Glance

General Extras
Category Drama None
Rating Rated M
Year Of Production 1985
Running Time 94:32
RSDL / Flipper No/No Cast & Crew
Start Up Menu
Region Coding 2,4 Directed By Norman Jewison

Sony Pictures Home Entertain
Starring Jane Fonda
Anne Bancroft
Meg Tilly
Anne Pitoniak
Winston Rekert
Gratien Gélinas
Guy Hoffman
Gabriel Arcand
Françoise Faucher
Jacques Tourangeau
Janine Fluet
Deborah Grover
Michele George
Case Amaray-Transparent
RPI $19.95 Music Georges Delerue

Video Audio
Pan & Scan/Full Frame None English Dolby Digital 2.0 (192Kb/s)
French Dolby Digital 2.0 (192Kb/s)
German Dolby Digital 2.0 (192Kb/s)
Italian Dolby Digital 2.0 (192Kb/s)
Spanish Dolby Digital 2.0 (192Kb/s)
Widescreen Aspect Ratio 1.78:1
16x9 Enhancement
16x9 Enhanced
Video Format 576i (PAL)
Original Aspect Ratio 1.85:1 Miscellaneous
Jacket Pictures No
Subtitles English
Smoking Yes, Jane Fonda chain-smokes during the whole film.
Annoying Product Placement No
Action In or After Credits No

NOTE: The Profanity Filter is ON. Turn it off here.

Plot Synopsis

    Psychiatrist Dr. Martha Livingstone (Jane Fonda) reluctantly accepts a court assignment to determine whether Sister Agnes (Meg Tilly) is mentally fit to stand trial for the murder of her new-born baby. Convent matriarch Mother Miriam Ruth (Anne Bancroft) acts as a liaison between Dr. Livingstone and young Agnes, who is either clinically insane, blinded by her faith, a shrewd liar, or just plain dumb.

    Mother Miriam and Dr. Livingstone have strong personalities and differing world views. Much of the drama comes from the friction generated by their shared interest in Sister Agnes' welfare, and how their conflicting professions interpret the same tragic event. Martha Livingstone is a product of contemporary attitudes and urban living: she chain smokes, drives a BMW, lives alone in a trendy loft apartment, wears extravagant clothes (leather gloves and boots, luxuriant shawls and overcoats) and looks like she stepped off the set of Charlie's Angels, with flowing tresses, rouged cheeks, and sparkling lip gloss. In contrast, Mother Miriam has the kind of pinched, bland features typical of someone who lives an ecclesiastic life behind convent walls, not to mention having the requisite inventory of outmoded beliefs. For example, she insists that Sister Agnes' pregnancy was an act of God. In one explosive encounter, Dr. Livingstone demands, "Give me an explanation!" To which Mother Miriam replies, "A miracle has no explanation!" You get the idea.

    Meanwhile, Sister Agnes drifts through her psychiatric interviews and hypnotherapy with all the detachment of a person tripping on LSD. Still, the facts remain: somehow she fell pregnant, and for some reason, she committed infanticide. As Dr. Livingstone digs deeper, experiences in her own past threaten to destabilise the investigation and cast doubt on her motives and judgement. While there are no surprises in the story's outcome, the movie seem to retain some of the ambiguity from the stage play, although less effectively perhaps, given the nature of the medium.

    Capably directed by Norman Jewison and adapted for the screen by John Pielmeier from his own play, Agnes of God explores the gulf between the secular modern world and the archaic beliefs of Christianity, two viewpoints represented by great performances from Jane Fonda and especially Anne Bancroft, who was nominated for an Academy Award for her portrayal of stoic Mother Miriam. Their verbal sparring is well written and makes for terrific entertainment. Meg Tilly won a Golden Globe for playing the emotionally lobotomised Sister Agnes, who claims to have been dropped on her head as a baby. This reviewer never doubted it for a second.

    Agnes of God has a lot more going for it than good acting: production design by movie legend Ken Adam, art direction by David Cronenberg regular Carol Spier (Blade II, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen), as well as the sensitive direction of Norman Jewison, the man who made Topol sing 'If I Were a Rich Man' with a toothache in Fiddler on the Roof. I particularly liked one shot of Mother Miriam arguing with Martha Livingstone, with Miriam frame left beside a portrait painting of a rustic family, and a wall of psychiatry text books frame right, with Martha's voice coming from off-screen – the whole movie summed up in one allegorical composition.

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Transfer Quality


    Presented in a ratio of 1.78:1 and 16x9 enhanced, Agnes of God boasts a gorgeous video image marred only by the occasional print speck. Shot in 1985 by Swedish cinematographer Sven Nykvist, who also worked on The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Sleepless in Seattle and Chaplin, Agnes of God is a joy to watch in this remastered edition.

    The degree of sharpness is excellent throughout. Fine details in faces, hair, clothing, surface textures and backgrounds (when they are in focus) are crisp and photorealistic. Instances of edge enhancement are rare, and those that I noticed were inconspicuous. Black levels are perfect with no sign of chalkiness, and shadows reveal subtle shades and tones on objects when required. Scenes filmed inside the convent barn worked particularly well.

    Colour saturation appears to reproduce the original colour palette faithfully. It is comprised of muted earthy colours such as creams, browns and soft greys, together with the black and white of the nun's habits – a scheme Norman Jewison also used in Fiddler on the Roof. Strong primary colours are mostly absent, and the sky above Montreal is never deeper than a watery cyan. Flesh tones are accurate – the difference between Jane Fonda's city chick make-up job and the reverential lack of facial decoration on Anne Bancroft and Meg Tilly (who sports an almost vampiric pallor) is clearly visible. There are no instances of colour bleed, smearing or low-level noise.

    Film artefacts consist of infrequent black and white specks. They are not distracting. As the movie opens, film grain is quite heavy for about 90 seconds, but it soon vanishes. The rest of the film is smooth, with only a very fine mesh of grain visible at times. Some telecine wobble occurs here and there, most notably during the opening credits. No other obvious film to video artefacts such as aliasing or compression glitches were spotted.

Video Ratings Summary
Shadow Detail
Film-To-Video Artefacts
Film Artefacts


    Agnes of God has five modest Dolby Digital 2.0 Pro-Logic surround soundtracks compressed at 192 kb/s. I listened to the English language option for this review.

    Dialogue is clear with no distortion or sync problems.

    The Academy award-nominated music score by Georges Delerue (Platoon, Casino, Black Robe, Steel Magnolias) tends to occupy the left and right sides of the sound stage, while the rear channel draws it toward the viewer, lending it more depth and breathing space. The score is understated, melancholy, yet poignant – much like the rest of the production design and direction.

    Besides assisting the music, the rear channel dribbled out some ambient noises every now and then. The soundtrack is predominantly focused toward the front channels, with the dialogue and sound effects almost mono in character due to all three front speakers sharing the load. There are few if any directional effects, and the audio fidelity is good enough for this kind of theatrical drama, with good dynamic range and separation. The subwoofer came to life only when my Marantz pre-amp decided to redirect bass from the main speakers.

Audio Ratings Summary
Audio Sync
Surround Channel Use



    The menus are 16x9 enhanced with no animation or sound.

R4 vs R1

NOTE: To view non-R4 releases, your equipment needs to be multi-zone compatible and usually also NTSC compatible.

    The Region 4 DVD misses out on:

    The Region 1 DVD misses out on:

    While the Region 1 release includes two trailers, these are incidental extras at best. From what I could determine, both discs present anamorphic video sourced from the same high definition transfer. I was unable to view the Region 1 disc. Some US reviewers were not thrilled about the picture quality, a judgement I do not hold for the Region 4 disc, despite the presence of minor film artefacts.

    The Region 1 DVD technically wins out with its duo of trailers. However, if you are loyal to Region 4, then the Australian release is perfectly adequate.


    Agnes of God is an effective drama that fires broadsides at religion and blind faith, while also being critical of the modern, consumerist way of life. Blissful ignorance may guarantee more happiness than dedicating yourself to institutional doctrines, but at what price? Sadly, no silver bullet can destroy one's personal demons. How we deal with them on a daily basis lies at the heart of the human condition. Denial and religion work for a simpleton like Agnes. For the rest of us, the struggle continues.

    The video quality is excellent, though not perfect. The audio specifications are adequate for telling a story of this kind. The only extras our release lacks are two trailers.

Ratings (out of 5)


© Rod Williams (Suss out my biography if you dare)
Thursday, October 16, 2003
Review Equipment
DVDPioneer DV-737, using Component output
DisplayLoewe Ergo (81cm). Calibrated with Video Essentials. This display device is 16x9 capable.
Audio DecoderMarantz AV9000 Pre-amp.
AmplificationArcam AV50 5 x 50W amplifier
SpeakersFront: ALR/Jordan Entry 5M, Centre: ALR/Jordan 4M, Rear: ALR/Jordan Entry 2M, Subwoofer: B&W ASW-1000 (active)

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