The first line of attack against Doubt by its detractors is that a certain staginess has carried over from director John Patrick Shanley’s original Pulitzer Prize-winning play. It’s true, the performances are a little too broad, the dialogue is a bit too precise and the plot and characters are a little too neatly laid out to feel natural, but when your stage is patrolled by Meryl Streep and she’s in top form, “staginess” isn’t such a bad thing after all.
It’s 1964, and Streep plays Sister Aloysius Beauvier, the stern and conservative principal of a Catholic High School in the Bronx. Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Father Flynn, the progressive new preacher who’d like the school to lighten up. Times are changing and he’d rather rule through friendliness than rule through fear.
The two of course are instantly at odds and when questions arise about the uncomfortably close relationship that develops between Father Flynn and one of the altar boys, Sister Aloysius sees her chance. Though there are perfectly reasonable and innocent explanations for the preacher’s behavior, something more sinister could also be afoot. Already suspicious of and threatened by this outsider with his big new ideas, Sister Aloysius favors (and fans) the idea that Father Flynn is a pedophile and she sets about building a case against him.
Caught in this crossfire is Sister James (Amy Adams), a naïve teacher at the school who looks up to Sister Aloysius but who is taken by the charismatic Father Flynn. Also stuck in the middle is the altar boy Donald Miller (Joseph Foster II). As the school’s sole black student, Donald is harassed by his classmates and he turns to the friendly preacher as the only one who will accept him.
It’s a setup fraught with dramatic potential and there are several obvious and unimaginative ways it could have played out, but Shanley is more interested in willfully defying your expectations and preconceptions. The winds of change are blowing and the forces of uncertainty and conviction are at odds with one another. Nothing is quite as simple as it seems despite everyone’s desire to make it so and Shanley thrusts his characters into this narrative turmoil until they emerge changed. How you feel about them in the end is much different than what you thought of of them when they were introduced.
It’s tempting to assume from the trailer that Streep will play a bitter, one-note harridan squaring off against the more likeable and modern Father Flynn. That’s definitely the springboard for the story’s conflict, but this isn’t a simple case of old versus new. There are many elements at play and all the characters are much more rounded than you first assume.
Streep tears into her performance with an energetic relish, prowling in and out of the frame like a bilious shark, pale skin against black habit. It’s the kind of performance that calls attention to itself, but you’re glad for it because it’s a wonder to watch. She doesn’t disappear into the character, but the other way around. It’s an illusion where the magician somehow shows you how the trick is done, but amazes you with it anyway. Though Streep threatens to go over the top, ultimately she gives the most full-blooded and fiercely entertaining performance of the year – yes, even more fun than Heath Ledger’s Joker. It’s the kind of performance that makes you smile to watch.
True, her performance is outsized, but it’s also surprisingly layered and nuanced. Sister Aloysius isn’t just hard, she’s actually very funny and Streep gets to display her knack for a comic line one sometimes forgets she possesses. Nor is she just a shrew. Though she’s lost the human touch, she’s a sensitive woman hardened by years of getting by in the shadow of the boy’s club that runs the church. As shaded by Streep, she is brittle but also at times sympathetic.
For his part, Philip Seymour Hoffman more than holds his own in direct combat with Streep on screen. His character is the more likeable to begin with, but he reveals a darkness as the film progresses whether he ultimately turns out to be a pedophile or not. If Hoffman doesn’t quite get the attention he deserves for this film, it’s mostly because his character simply isn’t as much fun. His performance is more internal and closed off than Streep’s. He simmers rather than boils, but he’s no less powerful or convincing.
Also worth noting is Amy Adams. Kind of a wispy actress to begin with, she risks getting blown off the screen by her co-stars, but she’s perfectly suited to the role of Sister James. She seems meek at first yet reveals a surprising backbone when pushed. Sort of the audience surrogate, Adams makes you feel Sister James’ confusion and uncertainty as she’s toyed with by Aloysius and Flynn. A little unsure of her own instincts, she is forced to choose between two steel-willed individuals whom she respects and admires and so are we.
Finally there is Viola Davis as the altar boy’s mother. Her part is smaller but no less memorable than any of the others. Like her co-stars but in a shorter amount of screen time, Davis manages to upend your expectations and transform before your eyes. Arriving on the scene late in the story but fully formed, she injects (along with Adams) a welcome dose of warmth and humanity. She gives the audience something to cling to while the other characters slug away at one another.
Deploying this menagerie of fully fleshed out characters and taking full advantage of Roger Deakins’ wintry cinematography and Howard Shore’s urgent score, writer/director Shanley pokes and prods the gray area between certainty and the doubt of the film’s title. How much can we ever really know and how much damage can we do whether we’re armed with knowledge or not?
Though set firmly within the Catholic religion, religious faith isn’t Shanley’s direct target; it’s just the rigid framework against which his drama starkly plays itself out. If faith can’t lead to the truth, then what hope do us sinners have? It’s a question we ask ourselves more and more in an increasingly complex world and Shanley refuses to provide easy answers.
As interesting as his moral questions are however, they too are finally just a backdrop to the superbly entertaining feat of acting turned in by Ms. Streep. Like Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood last year, she commands your attention in every scene she’s in and she looms as a presence in those she isn’t. What’s more, she seems to have inspired her cast-mates to rise to the challenge and the whole ensemble illuminates the screen. Let those with too narrow a vision of cinematic drama cry foul. In the end, all that matters is what works. Doubt not only works, it turns out to be one of the best films of the year.
Doubt. USA 2008. Written and directed by John Patrick Shanley from his original play. Cinematography by Roger Deakins. Edited by Dylan Tichenor. Music composed by Howard Shore. Costumes designed by Ann Roth. Starring Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Viola Davis and Joseph Foster II. 1 hour 44 minutes. MPAA Rated PG-13 for thematic material. 4.5 stars (out of 5)