Director : John Patrick Shanley
Screenplay : John Patrick Shanley (based on his play)
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2008
Stars : Meryl Streep (Sister Aloysius Beauvier), Philip Seymour Hoffman (Father Brendan Flynn), Amy Adams (Sister James), Viola Davis (Mrs. Miller), Joseph Foster II (Donald Miller), Alice Drummond (Sister Veronica), Audrie Neenan (Sister Raymond), Susan Blommaert (Mrs. Carson), Carrie Preston (Christine Hurley) and John Costelloe (Warren Hurley)
Adapted by John Patrick Shanley from his own 2004 Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Doubt takes place in a Bronx Catholic school in 1964, a crucial year that sits uneasily between the assassination of John F. Kennedy and the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council, which ushered in a number of progressive changes that, as much as anything in the ’60s, signaled the winds of change. In the film there is much discussion about wind, which the school’s stern, almost comically taciturn principal Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep) claims is somehow “different.” Although she seems to be speaking of the wind quite literally as she stands outside in the gray drab of a New York winter, her barbed words are directed not so subtly at Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the parish priest and her immediate superior. Although they both wear the cloth, they represent diametrically opposing viewpoints: Sister Aloysius is an unwavering block of resilience, while Father Flynn embodies a more liberal, humanistic approach to matters of faith, a man for whom tolerance and kindness are true virtues and the inclusion of a secular song in the school’s staid Christmas pageant doesn’t mean the end of the world.
The film follows the play’s basic narrative structure, which revolves around a carefully escalating battle of wills between Sister Aloysius and Father Flynn. The spark that ignites the blaze comes from a young and relatively naïve nun named Sister James (Amy Adams), whose observations cause her to wonder if Father Flynn has developed an “inappropriate” relationship with Donald Miller (Joseph Foster II), the school’s first and so far only black student. Sister Aloysius immediately jumps on the suggestion, immediately convinced that Father Flynn is guilty. She has no tangible evidence, of course, outside of what Sister James says she saw (Donald being visibly upset after returning from a meeting with Father Flynn, Father Flynn placing a tee-shirt inside Donald’s locker). Even after they confront the priest and he eventually produces a perfectly reasonable explanation, one that satisfies Sister James, Sister Aloysius is still unconvinced. “You have no proof!” Flynn explains, to which Sister Aloysius replies, “But I have my certainty.”
In the translation from stage to screen, Shanley has dropped a crucial piece of the play’s title, which was originally Doubt, a Fable. Combined with the literalism that realistic cinema tends to produce (which Shanley and cinematographer Roger Deakins fight to combat with canted camera angles and bold interior colors), the film version of Doubt loses much of its symbolic qualities, reducing its timelessness and emphasizing the particularities of its minimalistic story. The inherent intrigue generated by the accusations of pedophilia (a word that is never once uttered) certainly gives the film a natural momentum, but it is weighed down by its talkiness, which on stage translated figuratively but here feels stagey and often unconvincing.
Shanley is certainly working with a first-rate cast, but the characters seem so type-bound that they’re ultimately hemmed in, unable to expand beyond their preset molds. In conveying Sister Aloysius’s frightening rigor, Streep pitches her performance at the level of almost comical melodrama, which is a welcome respite from the film’s otherwise weighty solemnity. She plays up every fearsome quality of the knuckle-rattling nun-dictator, and watching her preside over a deathly silent dinner with the other sisters (which is contrasted with Father Flynn’s raucous dining with the other priests) is so uncomfortable that you can’t help but snicker (and wonder if she’s going to stare right out of the screen and demand to know What’s so funny?). As Father Flynn, Philip Seymour Hoffman plays a fine line that straddles victimhood (he is, after all, being unfairly accused, isn’t he?) and possibly conniving predator who hides behind friendly rapport and progressive ideals.
Which brings us again to that obvious and unironic title, which invites us to question everything, even our own responses. Do we feel less sympathetic toward Father Flynn when we discover that he’s changed parishes three times in five years? Does Sister James’s more demanding discipline in the classroom compromise her fundamental decency or simply make her a more effective teacher? Is Sister Aloysius a needed antidote to a rigid hierarchy that allows predator priests to slip from parish to parish unpunished, or is she a witch hunter intent on building her own power base and protecting her ideological intransience at the expense of others? All of these questions burn and swirl throughout Doubt, which makes it impossible to shake from your mind once it’s over.
Yet, Shanley has loaded the film with such a portentous tone and prattling attention to what it all means that he constantly undermines his own good work. Despite all the talk, the film’s best moments are when the characters are deliberately evasive, sometimes out of self-protection and sometimes to avoid embarrassing truths. One of the most powerful scenes involves Sister Aloysius talking with Donald’s mother (Viola Davis), who appears to be willing to allow her son’s possible abuse assuming it gives him a chance to escape the social ghetto imposed by his race. Yet, she never comes right out and says it, which forces us to hang on every word and turn of phrase, alternating between feeling sympathy for this clearly beaten-down woman and feeling appalled that she’s not being more forthright in protecting her only child. Clear intimations of homosexuality, another word that is never uttered, only serve to further complicate matters and heighten both the tension and the stakes of this battle of wills. Unfortunately, Shanley can’t maintain such subtlety, and in the film’s final moments he allows a character to tearfully proclaim the presence of doubt, which is a particularly heavy-handed and clanging wrong note for a film whose most powerful moments emerge from what is not said.
Copyright ©2008 James Kendrick
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