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Doubt /

Rated: PG-13

Starring: Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Viola Davis, Joseph Foster
Directed by: John Patrick Shanley
Produced by: Scott Rudin, Mark Roybal
Written by: John Patrick Shanley
Distributor: Miramax Films

Meryl Streep as Sister Aloysius. Photo Credit: Miramax Film Corp
Meryl Streep as Sister Aloysius and Philip Seymour Hoffman as Father Flynn. Photo Credit: Andrew Schwartz/Miramax Film Corp.

     Would it be wrong of me to suggest that Doubt, a fine film overall, should’ve stayed on Broadway because it doesn’t accomplish anything on a technical level that demonstrates it had to be made into a movie? I don’t think so—admittedly I’ve never seen the play—because writer/director John Patrick Shanley (adapting from his Pulitzer-prize-winning source) essentially just points a camera at what would’ve existed onstage anyway. While the medium of film shored up four amazing actors and will bring Doubt exposure, it doesn’t allow the material to offer the same viewer-relationship I assume its source captured because Shanley doesn’t take full advantage of filmic devices. Just as theatre has its own unique way of bonding with an audience, so does film – and for this bond to be forged, a filmmaker and his editor must hone camerawork, transitions, staging, et cetera. Doubt, while not technically incompetent, remains blocked and constructed like theatre, awkward in film. As a result, the picture doesn’t pack the punch it should have, but is nonetheless worthwhile for its thought-provoking script and Oscar-worthy acting.

     The premise is simple, but invites far-reaching thought. It’s 1964 in the Bronx at the Saint Nicholas Church and School, where Father Brendan Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is the priest. Father Flynn’s view of the Church’s role in its patrons’ and students’ lives is less old-fashioned than that of school principal Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Meryl Streep)—in one scene he sets her off by suggesting the children sing a secular song at their Christmas performance—making him a subject of grimacing resentment. This comes to a tragic head when Sister James (Amy Adams), the intimidated new history teacher, tells Sister Aloysius about an instance in which Father Flynn called Donald Muller (Joseph Foster) down to the rectory for no apparent reason, implying he may have molested Donald. Sister Aloysius at first has no doubt Father Flynn committed the act, confronting him and forcing him to provide an excuse. He says hat Donald was drinking altar-wine and he wanted to handle it without having to follow official procedure and expel Donald from the altar-boys. But Sister Aloysius still has her suspicions, pursuing Donald’s mother (Viola Davis) and vowing to have Father Flynn removed from the Church.

     The story quickly surpasses any gimmicks it may have lent itself to in the hands of a lesser writer. Shanley invites the viewer to consider the full range of possibilities to explain what happened. Yes, Father Flynn either molested Donald or he didn’t, but the situation isn’t that simple. Perhaps the reason why Sister Aloysius is so confident or that Sister James brought it up in the first place is that they themselves were molested as children and are paranoid. Or perhaps Father Flynn really did do it and their assumptions are right; after all, he does in one scene lecture the boys on grooming their nails properly and sweats profusely when Sister Aloysius questions him on the matter. And even if he did do it, perhaps it’s best that it’s kept quiet, as Donald’s mother painstakingly admits to Sister Aloysius because she sees no bright future for her African-American son if he doesn’t get through prized Saint Nicholas to qualify for college. Account for the general feeling of instability in the country—the film takes place during the Civil Rights movement, just after the assassination John F. Kennedy—and you’ll realize what a complex web Shanley has spun. 

     The performances hit all the right notes. Hoffman, with seamlessness, is able to play Father Flynn as both sleazy and caring. How he shifts from one to the other and back in a single moment I’m not entirely sure, evidence that he is one of our best working actors. Hoffman effectively skews towards a more sympathetic portrayal because the accusations against his character are so great that they provide all the doubt one needs to consider the possibility that something went on in the rectory. Said accusations are made with menacing vigor by Streep, who is as good as ever and delivers an unforgettable, stomach-churning character-epiphany in the film’s final scene. Supporting the two leads are Adams, dependably playing the vulnerable trigger of the calamity, and Davis, who in single passage will truly break your heart and may soon be regarded as the Oscar-frontrunner.

     But again I return to the question I posed at the beginning of this review. Had these four actors appeared in a run of the stage-play, Doubt would’ve been more powerful that way. It’s a movie with so many lovable qualities but it’s strangely unlovable itself because, from the first oddly-lensed shots, there’s a feeling that the breathtaking material belongs in a different medium. It’s hard to get to the root of this—I could bore you with dissections of individual frames and transitions all day—but it’s a feeling that surfaces often. While Doubt’s amateur aesthetic and assembly become easier to ignore as the film becomes progressively engrossing, the film is nonetheless marred from emerging as the full-scale masterpiece it could have been.

-Danny Baldwin, Bucket Reviews

Review Published on: 12.12.2008

Screened on: 12.3.2008 at the Aidikoff Screening Room in Beverly Hills, CA.


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