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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
When Fr. Flynn and Sister James are on the bench outside the school, Fr. Flynn opens his breviary. It's an English "Liturgy of the Hours," which was introduced in 1970, not the Latin "Breviarium Romanum" that was in use in 1964. See more »
Strong performances are the saving grace of "Doubt," an otherwise uneven, overly glib tale of possible sexual abuse in one New York City parish circa 1964.
Sister Aloysius is a tradition-bound nun who goes through life utterly untroubled by uncertainty or doubt, running her convent and grade school with unyielding self-righteousness and the iron fist of unchallenged authority. Sister Aloysius doesn't take any more kindly to the accoutrements of the modern world - she has banned all ballpoint pens from the premises and decries "Frosty the Snowman" as a celebration of pagan magic - than she does to the "liberalizing" effect Vatican II has had on the Church she views as the last bastion of morality in an increasingly permissive and immoral world. This puts her in direct conflict with Father Flynn, a reform-minded, man-of-the-people priest who is more concerned with his parishioners' needs than with church ritual per se - yet whom Sister Aloysius has reason to suspect might be a pedophile. Or is she simply targeting the man and seeing what she wants to see because his view of the Church is so at odds with her own? The third main character, Sister James, is a perpetually upbeat but generally naïve novice who becomes more than a disinterested bystander in the war-of-wills that erupts between her two equally hardnosed superiors.
In adapting his play to the screen, writer/director John Patrick Shanley hits on some intriguing themes revolving around certainty vs. doubt and traditionalism vs. progressivism, but the movie isn't always as intellectually honest and convincing as one might wish it to be, especially when Shanley indulges in such hokey effects as the winter wind batting against the windows or well-orchestrated thunder bolts crashing overhead at "meaningful" moments in the picture. Similarly, the reactions the characters have to one another and the situation they're involved in don't always ring true given the less enlightened time period in which the story takes place. And the final "transformative" moment comes upon us with such abruptness and with so little preparation that it quite literally rings down the curtain on the entire enterprise.
Yet, despite all these flaws, "Doubt" periodically rises to the occasion and does justice to the complexity of its subject matter. This is particularly the case in a searing scene between Sister Aloysius and the mother of one of the boys who may have fallen victim to Father Flynn's inappropriate conduct, a scene that catches us completely off-guard with its sheer unexpectedness and its paradigm-shifting effect on the story.
Moreover, the performances are uniformly excellent, starting with Meryl Streep who brings a surprising amount of humor and even warmth to a character who is, for all intents and purposes, cut off from her emotions by her dogmatically rigid nature. Phillip Seymour Hoffman effectively keeps us guessing as to the truth about his character, never tipping his hand one way or the other as to what is taking place in the depths of his soul. Amy Adams makes a compelling stand-in for those of us in the audience who are trying to reserve judgment on these two characters before all the facts are revealed. Special note must also be taken of Viola Davis, superb in her brief but unforgettable appearance as the mother who delivers an unsettling response to news that her son may have been the victim of a sexual predator.
The movie seems to suggest that one can never have one hundred percent certitude about anything in this life and that actions must often be taken even when all the "facts" in a particular case can never be fully known. Yet, what happens when such an action could result in the destruction of another person's livelihood and reputation? It's an interesting theme that is only sporadically well addressed by "Doubt," but the food-for-thought that the movie provides makes it worth checking out anyway.
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