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It's 1964, St. Nicholas in the Bronx. A charismatic priest, Father Flynn, is trying to upend the school's strict customs, which have long been fiercely guarded by Sister Aloysius Beauvier, the iron-gloved Principal who believes in the power of fear-based discipline. The winds of political change are sweeping through the community, and indeed, the school has just accepted its first black student, Donald Miller. But when Sister James, a hopeful innocent, shares with Sister Aloysius her guilt-inducing suspicion that Father Flynn is paying too much personal attention to Donald, Sister Aloysius sets off on a personal crusade to unearth the truth and to expunge Flynn from the school. Now, without a shard of proof besides her moral certainty, Sister Aloysius locks into a battle of wills with Father Flynn which threatens to tear apart the community with irrevocable consequences. Written by
American Film's heavyweight acting champs square off.
There are no better actors working in American film today than Meryl Streep and Phillip Seymour Hoffman. Streep has been on top for some time now and Hoffman has an unmatched resume of fine performances over the past five years. Pairing off as adversaries in John Patrick Shanley's stage play brought to screen they parry and prod throughout with each landing hay makers along the way.
Change is in the wind in 1964 for both the world and the Catholic Church (Second Vatican Council) as the country moves from conservatism to liberal thought. Sister Aloysius (Streep)is the principal of an inner city Catholic school who rules with an iron fist. Lamenting the loss of tradition (she thinks Frosty the Snowman is a song about worshiping false idols) she crosses swords with the popular and laid back Father Flynn who takes a more liberal view seeing the need to keep up with the times. His progressive ways gnaw at Sister Aloysius and she is soon suspecting Father Flynn of inappropriate relationship with altar boys even though she is without concrete proof.
The scenes between Streep and Hoffman are riveting from start to finish. Both attempt at first to be civil with each other but eventually they end up at each others throat bullying and threatening. It is a titanic emotional struggle that makes for a gripping drama flawlessly acted. I'm no big fan of Streep, finding the adopted accents she employs in some of her films false and hollow, but as the self righteous Nunzilla her pugnacious style and inflection rates with her Sophie's Choice performance. Hoffman has his work cut out for him to keep up with the formidable legend but he holds his own with equal footing.
In supporting roles Amy Adams is very effective as the unintended go between Sister James. Seized with doubt she like the audience mirrors our own misgivings as conflicted objective observers. Viola Davis as a troubled boy's mother has one lengthy powerful and painful scene that begins to tie loose ends together but offers no easy solution.
Writer director John Patrick Shanley does an admirable job in keeping the plot nebulous with ambivalent scenes and peripheral characters that purposefully enhance the suspense. Scenes are tightly edited with sparse but effective dialog giving the film its steady pace. Other than some jarring oblique angle shots the camera compositions and set design provide a somber ambiance for the drama and an arena for the perfectly measured performances by two masters of the craft in this fight to the finish that remains absorbing from beginning to end.
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