Doubt (I) (2008)
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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.
And though it's set in the early 1960s (roughly a year after the Kennedy assassination), there's no doubt that John Patrick Shanley's adaptation of his own Pulitzer-Prize winning stage play is a response to these dark times, when the only thing that seems to be uniting Americans is their collective insecurity and ever-weakening belief that things are going to get better.
At the center of "Doubt" is the mystery of whether or not a priest (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman) is guilty of taking advantage of an altar boy. The priest's primary (and really sole) prosecutor is Sister Aloysius, the uber-stern and terrifying principal of the Catholic school that provides "Doubt" its setting. Watching Hoffman and Streep spar is like watching two professional tennis players at their best, and fans of expert movie acting should waste no time in seeing the sparks fly between these two. The movie purposely never clarifies the ambiguity of the charges -- is Hoffman's priest truly guilty of something, or is Sister Aloysius simply on a mad witch hunt? Streep's character is the most fascinating. From one perspective, she's a nearly maniacal harpie, intent on ruining a man's life and career for no clear reason. However, if her accusations are legitimate, she's a sort of hero, demanding justice from a male-dominated world that's willing to look the other way. Streep's performance is something fascinating to behold -- she can convey more with an arched eyebrow than another actor can with his entire face.
Amy Adams gets the pivotal role of a young, innocent nun who first brings her suspicions about the priest to her superior, and then sees them become Frankenstein's monster. In many ways, Adams' character is us, the audience, placed in the position of having to come to a conclusion on our own when empirical evidence is lacking. Adams' role is the least showy, but she does much with it.
And then there's Viola Davis, who, in five minutes of screen time, decimates the audience with some shocking conclusions of her own as the altar boy's mother. The insulated, hushed world of the Catholic Church is blown wide open by this struggling mother, who's seen more of the world than any of the priests and nuns sheltered behind the church's walls, and who puts the film's running themes of racial and gender inequality into harsh perspective.
The central conflict in "Doubt" in many ways comes down to each individual's view of the world and his or her ability to accept the ambiguity of day to day living. There's a lot about the world we will never know and much about our futures we'll never be able to control. So what's better -- anticipating the worst and therefore being prepared when it comes; or believing in the best and running the risk of being disappointed when it fails to arise? The movie just poses this question -- it doesn't try to answer it.
"Doubt" is not a fancy movie and will win no awards for its cinematic audacity. But in looking back at the movies of 2008, I imagine it will stand as one of the best-acted films of the year.
The case in the movie: it is 1964 and in a Catholic school in Bronx a conflict erupts between the principal (Meryl Streep) and the priest (Philip Seymour Hoffman). The principal is Sister Aloysius, a nun very strict about the discipline. The priest, Father Flynn, is just the opposite, a very natural guy, open to people and to the world. The nun suspects him of pedophilia. The suspicion will never be confirmed, never thrown away. Eventually it's up to us to decide, and our role of spectators is played in the movie by Sister James (Amy Adams), a younger nun who is trying to understand what really is, oscillating between the two. By the way, genial idea of using male names for the Catholic nuns, to stress out the strictness of their rules.
The case about the movie: the epoch Doubt was made and the epoch the picture takes place are very different. The sixties were the years of Vatican II; the Catholic Church was opening largely its windows. It was the conflict (often brutal) between new and tradition, between progressives and conservatives. This was then. Today the Church is facing the scandals of pedophilia (and the way they are handled by the Catholic hierarchy).
So, if we take the epoch of the sixties, we take the side of Father Flynn, a man open to modernity, empathizing with the youth, with their questions and their way of seeing the world, speaking the language of his epoch, a wonderful man suspected by a retrograde nun.
Only the movie is made today, for today's viewers, and we are focused on today's issues. So here is the question: once the nun had suspicions that the priest was a pedophile, what was the right way to take? To not follow a case without positive evidence? Or, by the contrary, to follow the case, to force him to come with proofs of his innocence? What was more important: his right to privacy or the safety of the boys? We can say that the movie leaves the case open. Nothing demonstrates positively that the priest is a pedophile; nothing demonstrates that he isn't.
Well, the movie brings something more: what if? What if the boy is born with another orientation and the priest is just understanding and protecting him? Maybe just because the priest has the same orientation? There is a key scene in the movie, the discussion between Sister Aloysius and the boy's mother (wonderfully played by Viola Davis), leading to an unexpected outcome.
And I think here is the doubt the movie is putting forward: more than the doubt of Sister James (is Father Flynn an abominable pedophile, beyond his openness?), more even than the doubt of Sister Aloysius (was she right in following a man without positive proofs?), there is the doubt of humanity. Human behavior is complex, each human case is unique and cannot be assimilated to a general pattern. Things aren't every time what they look like, we should always consider this question, what if?
Needless to say, the outstanding performances are just the necessary requirements that Shanley has successfully met. After all, who could ask for a better cast than Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams and Viola Davis? All these actors display some of the best acting of their career. It is both the dialogue delivery and the non-verbal gestures that strengthens the doubts in the viewers mind and makes the characters nonetheless more convincing.
The slightly washed-out colours give the look of the 60s but also adds to the mysterious atmosphere. 'Doubt' is a very thought-provoking film. It has one questioning. Should the nun have reacted or should she have waited for evidence? But what if it was already too late for evidence? What has doubt done to them? It has them questioning themselves constantly. It has stolen their sleep. We accept that it is human to doubt but what does doubt do to us? What kind of power does it hold above us? How do we react on it? When should we react on it? The director beautifully manages to convey and provoke this without appearing pretentious or preachy.
"Doubt" is an exception, only in that the actors are especially marvelous. The many close-ups and the length of the shots attest to the trust John Patrick Shanley puts in them. Streep and Hoffman are superb. Adams and Davis are remarkable as well.
Still the most credit for this phenomenal effort must go to Shanley.
What a fascinating story, with layers and springbacks that will leave you thinking and rethinking.
Thank you very much to all involved with this fine film.
This factor is brought to light in Doubt, John Patrick Shanley's filmed version of his Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize winning stage play. Based on Shanley's personal experiences at Catholic School, the film explores not only the issue of possible sexual abuse but conservative versus progressive religious values and how far one can rely on suspicion in the absence of proof. Set in 1964, one year after the Kennedy assassination, Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Meryl Streep) is the dragon lady of St. Nicholas school in the Bronx. A strict taskmaster, she relishes her role as the upholder of tradition, rejecting such modern devices as ballpoint pens and the singing of secular songs at Christmas like Frosty the Snowman which she equates with pagan magic.
Under Aloysius is the sweet and innocent Sister James (Amy Adams) whose easy going manner and charming personality is a welcome antidote to her authoritarian superior. The priest at St. Nicholas is Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) who is the closest thing to a progressive at the school. He is open to new ideas and the changes initiated by Pope John XXIII, being much more open and relaxed with the children and engaging them in sports and conversation. In his sermons he brings the language of religion into the twentieth century, talking about the positive aspects of doubt and the injurious effects of gossip. "Doubt", he says, "can be a bond as powerful and sustaining as certainty. When you are lost, you are not alone." Resentful of the role of women in the Catholic Church and suspicious of Father Flynn, Sister Aloysius assigns Sister James to keep an eye peeled for anything unusual in his conduct. Her fears appear justified when Sister James reports that Father Flynn asked Donald Miller (Joseph Foster II), the school's only African-American student, to a private conference in the rectory and was seen hanging up the boys undershirt in his locker. Sister James also informs her that there was alcohol on the boy's breath and that the boy seemed upset when returning to his desk.
Although no inappropriate behavior was witnessed, Sister Aloysius suspects wrongdoing and summons the priest to her office on the pretext of discussing the Christmas pageant. She accuses the priest of misconduct with the altar boy who denies that he gave altar wine to the boy or that anything unusual happened. The drama takes more twists and turns, especially when Donald's mother (Viola Davis) raises Aloysius' eyebrows by suggesting that, in spite of the allegations, the boy, who is due to enter high school in a few months, may be better off in the hands of the priest than having to face his intolerant and abusive father.
Doubt avoids easy answers and challenges us to view inflammatory issues from a broader perspective, embracing the essential mystery of human behavior. The acting in the film is uniformly brilliant. Streep is mesmerizing, even if at times more theatrical than may be necessary for the character. Philip Seymour Hoffman's performance is more restrained and draws our sympathy with his broader view of church doctrine and display of love and compassion, although his demeanor at the end tantalizingly suggests remorse.
What may be the most noteworthy performance, however, is that of Viola Davis whose dialogue with Aloysius is one of the dramatic high points of the film. The issue of whether Father Flynn acted as a friend and mentor to the boy or a sexual partner is ultimately left to the viewer to resolve, though what is beyond doubt is that absolute certainty without considering other points of view is a dead end for all involved.
The linear narrative style is refreshing, with no flashbacks and flash forwards, and no contamination of the story (set in the early 1960s) with the hindsight of recent events. It is relentless. We see the events of those days without any cinematic deus ex machina. We are not privileged to any all-showing exposition of critical events. We have only the souls of the principles as expressed in their dialog and in their faces.
With the mighty acting duo of Philip Seymour Hoffman and Meryl Streep, and a more than able supporting cast and superb direction, "Doubt" has dramatic fireworks without cheap gimmicks.
The final 30 seconds puts a fitting cap on the message. The effect is devastating.
Although it includes some heavy themes, Doubt, is one of the most entertaining and involving films to come along in quite sometime. Rarely have my heart and mind been so engaged in a film simultaneously. At its heart, Doubt remains the stage play upon which it is based, about a priest who is accused of having an inappropriate relationship with a young boy. The priest is played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman, and the nun investigating (Sister Aloysius, great name) the situation is played by Meryl Streep, the best living actress and the best actress of the year. The language used in the film treats the situation very carefully and the confrontations between the characters crackle with well- written intensity. The film's central theme is indeed the title: Doubt. As an audience, we are left to our own devices in judging Father Flynn's relationship to the young boy. This uncertainty is a rare and valuable thing in film today. Great performances, wonderful writing and tough themes.
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.