Doubt (2008) / Drama
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for some language and thematic material
Running time: 104 min.
Cast: Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Viola Davis
Director: John Patrick Shanley
Screenplay: John Patrick Shanley (adapted from his play)
Review published January 23, 2010
The setting is the tumultuous times of 1964 in the Bronx, NY. Meryl Streep (Lions for Lambs, The Ant Bully) plays Sister Aloysius Beauvier, the strict and stern traditionalist head nun and principal of a school for Catholic youth who, upon hearing the concerns of one of her younger nuns in her care (Adams, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day), begins to suspect that one of the most popular and progressive of the priests, Father Flynn (Hoffman, Charlie Wilson's War), may be involved in a highly inappropriate, immoral and illegal relationship with one of the school's students. Father Flynn denies any wrongdoing and accuses Sister Aloysius of a vendetta against him for his belief that love and compassion are the ways to motivate the children in their care rather than through her own tactics of discipline and fear. Without anything but suspicions, the Sister is still resolved that her beliefs are absolutely right, and she makes it her mission to get Father Flynn to confess to the transgressions she is certain he has committed.
John Patrick Shanley (Joe Versus the Volcano, Moonstruck) adapts his own play and takes the director's chair for this impressively mounted and impeccably acted exploration into usurped righteousness and how it comes into play when dealing with the ready beliefs that someone who you don't agree with philosophically is somehow not a good person, despite evidence to support such feelings. Stanley's strengths in this film comes through the very nuanced characterizations, each one flawed but basically striving for their own sense of what's ultimately for a greater good. But in the end, it is an acting showcase for Streep and Hoffman, who captivate throughout, sometimes in their subtlety and other times in their ability to show vehement outrage.
Although both the behavior of both parties will cause us, the audience, to switch our own beliefs as to who is right and who is wrong in this test of wills, and while the final question as to what transpired between Father Flynn and the young man in the rectory is never definitely answered, Shanley provides enough clues on both sides such that people can form their own conclusions, but not without a modicum of doubt. Did Flynn make advances? Did he merely offer advice to a student struggling with his own sexuality? Is there something in Sister Aloysius's past that is spurring her on to a vendetta against Father Flynn, or does she just not like his ways and wish him removed? All the cards are on the table for our assessment, and we'll all come away thinking we know the answer, but not with 100% certainty -- the theme of the entire piece.
Ultimately, the story itself doesn't quite nail home its themes so much as give you something to think about, and the end in particular feels like the ending of a play without the benefit of the curtains dropping effect. I suppose that may be one inherent problem with faithful adaptations from stage to screen -- the stage version, with its intimacy and dialogue, often suits the story better. But with great leads, skillful direction, and solid supporting performances by Amy Adams, whose character represents the balance between her natural demeanor of kindness and the learned skills of a newfound disciplinarian, and Viola Davis, whose one powerhouse scene impressed enough to garner her an Academy Award nomination, Doubt still runs on all cylinders professionally in delivering a solid musing on the duplicitous power of faith and doubt, faith coming from the heart and doubt from the mind.
©2010 Vince Leo