Strong performances dominate this Tony Award-winning adaptation
Writer/Director: John Patrick Shanley
Notable Cast: Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Viola Davis
Philip Seymour Hoffman’s staring straight. His attention is on his co-star Meryl Streep, but his eyes move like a typewriter across the page. Is he nervous, or is it Streep’s forceful voice that makes him want to hang on to every syllable? In the scene they are engaged in a battle of wills, the two acting like a couple of fighters in a boxing match, trying to deliver a knockout blow.
This climatic scene in John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt, a film for which he adapted his Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning play, is an acting lover’s dream: the chance to see two of the industry’s best leave it all out on screen, neither of them willing to give up an inch.
Rarely is it the case that a film provides an indecisive conclusion. Doubt is a story about the conflicting ideals of doubt and certainty. Once the film wraps, you are left to ponder at what has transpired.
It’s 1964. Hoffman is Father Flynn, a priest that presides over the St. Nicholas school in the Bronx. He wants to lessen the coldness of the school’s strict rules. Those rules are enforced by Sister Aloysius (Streep), the Principal and strict disciplinarian against boys who misbehave.
Flynn and Aloysius are pure in faith, but view the world differently. Flynn is a progressive who questions the establishment, while still holding true to the values it instills. He wants the church to be friendlier. Sister Aloysius, an old-school nun, would rather stick to the old ways of the church – like using fountain pens over ballpoint pens – than have her identity affected by the likes of him.
But both lives would be affected the day Sister James (Amy Adams), one of the young teachers at the school, tells Sister Aloysius of a guilt-ridden suspicion she had of Father Flynn. Sister James believes Flynn pays too much personal attention to one of his altar boys, Donald Miller (Joseph Foster). The word “sex” is never mentioned but it is inferred. The suspicion leads to an accusation, and it brings with it an air of uncertainty that is fraught with moral dilemmas.
The controversy: Did Father Flynn have an improper relationship with student Donald Miller? Flynn denies the accusation in the presence of Sister Aloysius, but Aloysius is certain of his guilt. Sister James, witness to their verbal face-off, arrives at a conclusion, and like us isn’t certain that her belief is the correct one.
With a subject that is sure to recall the Catholic sex abuse cases of 2001, Shanley doesn’t take sides. His film is a showcase of emotions, as well as a showcase for its four main actors. Of course you have Meryl Streep. She makes the effort to understand each character she plays (yes, even something as cheeky as Mamma Mia!) As Sister Aloysius, she is a rock, holding still to her convictions.
Philip Seymour Hoffman more than holds his own against Streep. He could have easily folded his hand and given into the pressures of sharing the screen, but Hoffman is strong in his portrayal as Father Flynn. Though confident, his compassion could be construed as a weakness, making us question his relationship with Donald Miller. Amy Adams is quiet in her role, but is nonetheless impressive. She is idealistic and full of life. Through her the story takes shape, and she remains positioned in the middle trying to reach her own conclusions.
Viola Davis has the least of amount of screen time of the four, playing Donald Miller’s mother, yet her presence is a mood changer. She gives a wrenching account of her son’s life away from St. Nicholas; again painting a picture that makes us feel sorry for him and his situation.
In his first directorial effort since Joe Versus the Volcano, Shanley goes to great lengths to not deliver a clear truth. With a title like Doubt I wouldn’t expect anything different. He embeds clues about Flynn’s sexuality that we are led to believe. This could further explain the bond both he and Donald share, or it could be a case of misdirection. Up until now I resisted mentioning that Donald is the only black student in an all-white school. Considering the time the story takes place, Flynn understands the pressures facing the boy. Seems like an innocent mentoring relationship, yet there are indications that Flynn’s past associations in other schools may not have been so innocent.
That’s the beauty of Doubt. Viewers are asked to make up their own mind. A little manipulative on Shanley’s part – could be. But it is hard to resist a drama with a great cast and material that is as intellectually fulfilling as it is complex.
FINAL RATING (ON A SCALE OF 1-5 BUCKETS):
Tags: Amy Adams, Doubt, Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Viola Davis