Starring Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Viola Davis, Lloyd Clay Brown, Joseph Foster, Bridget Megan Clark, Lydia Jordan, Evan Lewis, Paulie Litt and Frank Shanley.
Screenplay by John Patrick Shanley.
Directed by John Patrick Shanley.
Distributed by Miramax Films. 104 minutes. Rated PG-13.
Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep) is an old school nun, even in New York boroughs in 1964. The principal at a Catholic school, she severely stalks the school hallways and the chapel. She is waging a personal war against such modern evils as hair barrettes, ballpoint pens, “fidgety boys” and secular Christmas music – just listen her unintentionally hysterical explanation of the heresy behind “Frosty the Snowman.”
Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is a newer type of Catholic. Young, hip, friendly and all-inclusive. He believes that the church has to bend a little to appeal to its parishioners. He feels that he can be people’s friend as well as confessor. He wants to convert people through kindness rather than fear.
It is the battle between the old church and the new – one is rigid, apparently humorless and unforgiving, the other is more inclusive, somewhat informal and sometimes flawed.
The middle ground is found in Sister James (Amy Adams) – who is kind, giving, forgiving and just a little naive. She is new to the convent and the school, has a bright disposition and a natural trust of the inherent goodness in people.
Doubt is based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by John Patrick Shanley – who adapted his play here as well as directing it. Shanley does have a history in film. He won an Oscar for his 1987 screenplay for Moonstruck. However, this is only his second job as a director – the last being almost 20 years ago with the odd Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan misfire Joe vs. the Volcano.
His work as a director has improved immeasurably – though he does occasionally overdo it with the symbolism of wind, etc. However, Doubt works so well because it is mostly true to its theatrical roots. There were only four characters in the play. The film has been spread out somewhat and supporting characters are added, but for the most part these four are the entire thrust of the film. The dialogue is smart and diverse, but there is not much in the way of action.
The subject matter of Doubt is explosive and one that has been much on the public’s mind – the possibility of sexual harassment of children by a man of the cloth. However, Shanley isn’t just trying to take a scathing look at religion and priests. It is more a look at faith and belief and it also questions whether a man is innocent just because he has not been proven guilty.
Sister Aloysius comes to mistrust the Father’s casual ways and asks Sister James to keep an eye on him. Sister James doesn’t like the idea of spying, so she is hesitant to tell her superior about a disturbing encounter she had with the school’s first African-American student, a young boy who the Father has taken under his wings. Sister Aloysius quickly comes to believe that the Father’s relationship with the boy may be inappropriate.
Sister Aloysius has no real proof – even she acknowledges that. (When the priest asks her why she suspected he was capable of this, she says because she saw another boy flinch when the Father touched his hand.) But even with no proof, she still seems to have an unwavering belief that he is guilty, even to the point that she tells the boy’s mother of her suspicions. The mother – in a bravura supporting turn by Viola Davis – does not exactly take the news the way the Sister would have imagined.
In the play, apparently, the audience knows right off the bat whether or not the priest is guilty of the crime. I think the ambiguity works better here. The audience wants to believe that Sister Aloysius is overreacting and that Father Flynn is innocent, because there is little proof and the alternative is too horrible.
However, that would be too easy – the movie doesn’t give us the out of proving or disproving what happened. Father Flynn appears to be getting persecuted with very little evidence, however he stubbornly won’t seem to go so far as to prove himself innocent. For the most part, there is enough information to think that both of them may be right and may be wrong.
Just like religion, it’s all about faith – even when you have your doubts.
Jay S. Jacobs
Copyright ©2009 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: April 1, 2009.