Doubt (2008) dir. John Patrick Shanley
Starring; Meryl Streep, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Viola Davis
Meryl Streep turns in what’s so far the absolute best performance of the year. Streep anchor’s John Patrick Shanley’s adaptation of his own Pulitzer Prize winning play. It’s a battle of wills and words between a nun and a priest over a charge of sexual abuse. Intense performances from the quartet of actors listed above deliver the goods in this intriguing morality tale.
It’s 1963 in a Bronx Catholic School, and the film opens with Father Flynn’s inspiring sermon about the fear which has come about since President Kennedy’s assassination. Flynn is a respected liberal mentor to his kids, especially young Donald (Joseph Foster), who is picked on for being the only black kid in school. Meryl Streep’s Sister Aloysius Beauvier is a ‘dragon-lady’ of a nun, who, as principal, rules with steely eye coldness and intimidation. Flynn’s progressive ways seem a threat to Aloyious’s traditional ways of discipline.
When a young teacher, Sister James (Amy Adams) comes to Aloysius with accusations of ‘questionable behaviour’ against Flynn, it becomes an opportunity for the nun to combat her rival. With very little evidence Aloysius becomes judge, jury and executioner and attacks Flynn with such brutal force. It becomes a stand off, like a Western duel of wills to see justice prevail.
Shanley’s story is perhaps too light in content to fill an entire feature film. In fact, “Doubt” feels like a two-act story, without a third act to take it to a true cinematic level. But within these parameters words act like daggers and Shanley forms two characters with astonishing depth and subtext.
For most of the film Streep is so deliciously nasty and brutal she is the personification of evil. Shanley is constantly questioning his characters' morals and ethics. Is Aloysius doing the right thing? She suspects Flynn of this heinous crime and serves to protect Donald from harm. But is she? Does she have the right to use unilateral authority in her accusations? Shanley is constantly making us question, or “doubt”, the motivations of his characters.
Hoffman’s Father Flynn is equally as intriguing. He’s set up as a courageous libertarian, delivering inspiring sermons and standing up for the mistreated. But knowing that he could be a child abuser causes us to “doubt” his sincerity. Even the question of what is best for the child reveals an uncertain answer. The phenomenal scene featuring Viola Davis as Donald’s mother adds even more complex layers to the situation. Her reaction to Aloysius’ accusations are not as one might think.
Important to all the reactions and motivations of the characters is the timeframe. “Doubt” is a different film set in the 60’s than the 00’s. Bitter racial and gender differences cloud the differences between right and wrong. And so everything in “Doubt” is a shade of grey.
As mentioned, if anything, Shanley doesn't quite elevate his words beyond the stage and into high cinema. Not even Roger Deakins, the great cinematographer, who lenses the film, nor composer Howard Shore who scores the film helps. It results in a rudimentary visual and auditory palette.
But Jack Nicholson reportedly once said he'd do a film if it had three good scenes and no bad scenes. "Doubt" is anchored by three great scenes - one scene with Viola Davis and Meryl Streep and two scenes with Hoffman and Streep. It seems to be a conscious decision to distill out the background in order to zero in on these three scenes performed of great thespian force. Enjoy.