Laura CliffordSt. Nicholas parish, The Bronx, 1964. The Catholic Church is undergoing radical changes but Sister Superior Aloysius (Meryl Streep) is set firmly in the outmoded traditional ways. A young nun, Sister James (Amy Adams), approaches her with suspicions about Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and a young black student, Donald Miller (Joseph Foster). This launches Sister Aloysius on a one-nun campaign to uncover the progressive priest’s perceived sordid ways in “Doubt.”
John Patrick Shanley adapts and directs his own original play about sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. He takes his story back to 1964, a time when such things a sex molestation of children was virtual unheard of in our society. He makes this a battle of traditional versus progressive thinking, though, with the focus on the building conflict between Sister Aloysius and Father Flynn.
Meryl Streep sets her character, nicknamed by the parish priests as the Dragon, into play almost immediately when she castigates Sister James for allowing a ball point pen in her classroom. She believes that a fountain pen is the only writing implement the Lord allows and such heresy as a ballpoint pen is not to be condoned. Father Flynn uses a ballpoint pen. When Sister James voices her concern regarding the priest, Sister A seizes on it and sets out to prove that her darkest suspicions about Father Flynn are true.
This is a subtle piece of writing with major social questions raised with the answers, in the end, cloaked in ambiguity. Somehow, not getting the answers makes for a satisfying film that keeps you thinking about “Doubt” long after the credits roll. Of course, a great screenplay can only be translated into a great film when great actors are given the characters to play. With Meryl and Philip Seymour, you have two of our best actors and they fill their roles with zeal, especially Ms Streep. Amy Adams gives the right note of naiveté and wisdom to her Sister James.
Technical and artistic aspects abound with Roger Deakins’s expert lensing, Howard Shore’s well-suited score, production design (David Gropman), art direction (Peter Rogness) and costume (Ann Roth) all lending to the whole of “Doubt.” I give it an A-.
'What do you do when you're not sure?' begins Father Flynn's (Philip Seymour Hoffman) Sunday sermon as Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep) sternly parades the pews to chastise those elementary school children who dare to not pay attention. It is the nun, though, who rationalizing her intuition and experience will condemn the priest for actions she cannot prove and for which she will later express "Doubt."
Writer/director John Patrick Shanley ("Joe Versus the Volcano") adapts his Tony and Pulitzer Prize award winning play for the big screen with two powerhouse actors assuming the lead roles and it is a richly satisfying, often surprisingly comical cinematic experience. Streep (in the role Cherry Jones won a Tony for), the queen of accents, assumes a flat Bronx voice for her purse-lipped disciplinarian and her sly performance is a hoot. Seymour Hoffman walks the fine line that Shanley intended keep Father Flynn ambiguous - like Sister James (Amy Adams, "Enchanted") we want to believe in his innocence, but the little 'tells' Hoffman subtlely drops are disturbing.
It is 1964 at St. Nicholas parish and as Father Flynn prepares for mass, we note the prominently placed bottle of altar wine that is half empty. Donald Miller (Joseph Foster, "Twelve and Holding"), a young black altar boy, asks his partner, one of the white boys of their Irish/Italian American neighborhood, "Do you think I'm fat?," an odd question. Shanley is sowing the seeds of his intensely thought-provoking drama almost subliminally, before his audience has barely begun to pay attention.
On the following morning, a school day, Sister Aloysius watches as her school's classes line up. Later, at dinner, the principal asks her fellow nuns to keep an eye on Father Flynn as she has reason to suspect him of wrongdoing. When he calls Donald Miller from Sister James's class and the boy returns upset, Sister James reports the news to her Mother Superior. Father Flynn is called to meet with the two nuns with an agenda on the upcoming Christmas Pageant, but is cornered with questions about the Miller boy, who had alcohol on his breath when returned to Sister James. Flynn resents the questions, but supplies an answer that convinces Sister James. Sister Aloysius is another matter.
Shanley's work is beautifully structured, using Father Flynn's sermons to respond to Sister Aloysius's accusations (his sermon on gossip employs a terrific parable), and Sister Aloysius's pet peeves (Cough drops, ball point pens, sugar, "Frosty the Snowman") to underscore her intolerance. Sister James, an innocent and naive young nun, is the tool with which the author explores both sides of Aloysius's character. Sister James is very aware of the human kindnesses Aloysius takes pains to obscure, and yet is very well aware of the elder nun's severity. Aloysius will be recognized by any Catholic School survivor, attaining respect through fear and obedience through cunning trickeries. Both skills are used for her vendetta on Flynn. 'It's my job to outshine the fox in cleverness' she tells Sister James, Shanley winkingly connoting convent as hen house. There is a power struggle between the two houses as well, and Shanley shows up their differences at dinner - austere in the convent, raucous in the rectory, where smoking, drinking and jokes are the norm. Double entendre dialogue is skillfully used. Discussing an elderly nun's tumble in the courtyard, Sister Aloysius observes 'Nuns fall you know - it's the habit,' a statement which, of course, could pertain to her crusade. Wind is a symbolic presence throughout, the storminess designating both the ugliness in the Catholic Church that would be revealed decades later and the winds of change sweeping through it. As obvious as it is, it works, whereas Shanley should have excised some less elegant metaphors involving a cat and mouse and the light bulb that goes out in Sister Aloysius's office.
The acting could not be improved upon. Streep's performance has been criticized by the industry's Variety, but her choices never seem false. Her Aloysius is a calculating, complex character. Streep manages to make her funny without betraying the serious stakes at hand. Most importantly, Streep shows us Aloysius's vulnerability and hesitations - she sometimes lacks conviction when her old ways are challenged (adding a secular song to the pageant) and at other times remains utterly assured. The almost offhand revelation that Aloysius was once married is a bombshell in Streep's hands, one that makes us reevaluate everything. Hoffman is perfection as the genial neighborhood priest who acts like a pal to the school kids. He colludes with Tommy Conroy (Paulie Litt, "Speed Racer") as the lad sits outside the principal's office and comforts Donald Miller when a bully upends his books. And yet. Flynn tells Aloysius that their parish should regard them as friendlier, that they should take the kids out for ice cream once in a while, but when he adds taking the boys for a camping trip, alarm bells ring. Watch him in his final sparring match with Streep - when confronted baldly with her accusation, the actor says 'No' with such conviction that you may not even notice his head nodding up and down.
Support is equally strong. In lesser hands, Sister James could be nothing but a plot device, but Amy Adams gives the nun depth. She is wide-eyed and sweet, but no pushover. Viola Davis ("Nights in Rodanthe"), who made a strong impression with only one scene as a grieving mother in "World Trade Center," does it again here as Mrs. Miller, a woman willing to compromise in a no win situation.
Production values are terrific, the Bronx parish in the dawn of winter gray and yet inviting. Period details like the intercom system and the food served at school are note perfect. The great cinematographer Roger Deakins ("No Country for Old Men") captures the early morning convent in the painterly light of a Rembrandt or Vermeer and combines the classic Dutch angle with his camera positioned from below when Flynn is first directly confronted. He's not working with majestic landscapes, but Deakins's work is some of the very best of the year.
"Doubt" is a fine adaptation, an endlessly intriguing film of small moments adding up to a big emotional and intellectual impact. It is a smart movie about serious issues that goes down like Aloysius's resented spoonful of sugar.
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