REVIEW: Poor Agnes
– By Allan Lear
There’s a list that does the rounds every so often that purports to be magicked up from the depths of the psychiatric profession. Let’s see if you can guess whom it describes. It’s a list of traits known as the Hare Checklist and it contains such laudable attributes as grandiose egotism, sexual promiscuity, constant need for stimulation, pathological lying, lack of remorse, shallow emotional response, callous lack of empathy, a parasitic lifestyle, poor behavioural controls and impulsivity, lack of realistic long-term goals, irresponsibility, failure to accept responsibility for one’s own actions, numerous short-term marital relationships, sexual promiscuity and manipulativeness. Not on Hare’s checklist but allied, according to studies, is – and this one surprises people who get all their ideas about mental illness from films – marginally sub-average IQ.
Have you guessed what it is yet?
Well, give yourself one point if you said “current presidents of the USA!” and then deduct three points for going for the obvious joke. Likewise if you said politicians in general. Two points if you said “actors”, three if you said “self-appointed film critics” and five if you said “CEOs of Fortune 500 companies”.
The answer is, of course, psychopaths. I’ve chuntered on before about the glamorisation of psychopathy in films before now and how the Hollywood idea of a genius psycho sex killer bears no relation to the reality of the abusive, stunted twats who are their real-life equivalents.
One thing that I left off the Hare Checklist is superficial charm, and this is where Hollywood and the real world tend to agree. Your actual meatspace psychopath might be stupider than a lead box full of aristocrats, but what he does share with his fictional counterpart is the ability to radiate a high degree of glib charisma on slight acquaintance.
Poor Agnes is a film about a man turning up to investigate a disappearance, only to find that the hot blonde he was questioning has locked him in a basement and taken to starving him to death. As such it’s quite a standard attempt to invert the gender roles of the usual psycho killer thriller. What’s unusual is that it plays one of the less commonly remembered characteristics of the socio-mentalist: the shallow emotional response that often emerges as a tendency to fall prey to sentimentality.
You see, our femme (serially) fatale has found herself in a bit of a bind. As her captive has come to her in search of a previous victim, she realises that he is merely the spearhead. Some sort of investigation into her blood-and-thunder playtimes is occurring, and she can’t afford to kill her inquisitive acquisition until she has learned from him who is interested in her behaviour and what they know already.
So a lengthy torture process begins and, as the days go by, Agnes finds herself falling for her tormented guest. Not falling in love with him, because psychopathy renders her incapable of depth of feeling; but she becomes fond of him, eventually treating him as a sort of cross between a tolerated pet and a favoured dildo.
It’s a wonderful new take on the serial killer as social entity, and it’s not done badly. Beautiful cinematography and framing is on display from director Navin Ramaswaran but, judging by the performances, Ramaswaran is not one of those pseudo-directors who know how to frame a shot but not how to handle a cast. The two leads, Lorna Burke as Agnes and William Conlon as her captive/fuckbuddy Chris are excellent, with finely-judged performances as a psychotic wrestling with an unexpected conscience and a beaten man devolving into Stockholm syndrome respectively.
So it’s a great pity that Poor Agnes is a such a tedious grind of nothingness, really. How anyone can come up with such a potentially interesting set-up and then spend two hours of film doing absolutely bugger-all with it frankly beggars belief, but somehow it’s been achieved. We’re treated to a fly-on-the-wall view of the long and drawn-out process by which Agnes acclimatises her captive to the notion of life with a serial nutter, which is all very realistic and well-performed but because there’s no subsidiary plot moving, it’s very static and hard to endure. The occasional rages Agnes flies into where she batters shite out of her poor victim seem more like attempts to throw a bit of dynamism into the proceedings than a real idea of how such a kidnapping would pan out.
That said, there is one gorgeous moment. As Agnes belts Chris about the torso and head with a broom handle for some fault, real or perceived, she threatens him: “I’m going to shove this handle up your ass!” “It won’t fit,” bleats Chris, and suddenly the two of them are rolling on the floor giggling and holding hands. More moments like this would have helped pace the film and illustrated the bipolar condition of the both characters’ minds.
Poor Agnes also gets resolved more-or-less by accident, which is further evidence lending itself to the diagnosis that this film has two great characters and no real idea of what to do with them.
As an actors’ showcase the film is a great success, and if what you want from your films is to watch masters craftsmen giving focussed and driven performances then I would unhesitatingly recommend Poor Agnes to you. If, however, what you like from your horror movies is that they should be a bit like horror movies, then I’m sorry to say that you would find this film a boring drudge through an absence of happenings to a rushed conclusion.
It’s an obvious final statement to arrive at, but the fact remains: the charm of Poor Agnes is entirely superficial and does not survive two hours’ close contact.