(No longer in theaters)
Dec 12, 2008
John Patrick Shanley’s film of his every-award-under-God-winning play Doubt is a heavy slab of dramaturgy, dark-toned and somber, yet intense as hell. Even opened up for the screen, with air and trees and extra kids and nuns, it has a primal theatrical compression: One confrontation forces the next, backs are driven against walls, no points of view overlap. Big stuff is packed into small rooms with the roofs ready to explode.
It’s 1964, and Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) delivers a sermon to his congregation and the schoolboys in his charge asserting that doubt can be as sustaining as certainty, and few understand what he’s on about—least of all this Catholic school’s severe principal, Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Meryl Streep), who strides among the pews and classrooms watching for signs of disobedience. Wherefore, she wonders, this liberalism? There must be a sinister motive. A fresh-faced, hopeful nun, Sister James (Amy Adams), notices Father Flynn paying special attention to Donald (Joseph Foster II), the school’s sole—and very vulnerable—African-American student, who returns from a private meeting with the priest looking shaken. No … It couldn’t be … Yet she has a duty: Sister Aloysius must be told.
Whose voice is coming out of Streep? It’s working-class Queens, pinched and nasal: Edith Bunker? Among these naturalistic actors, the accent is distracting, and so is the ever-pursed mouth. Yet Streep is riveting. She shows that Aloysius, however monolithic her exterior, is alive on the inside. The eyes dart about, and the musings under her breath—sighs, asides, exclamations—suggest an openness to the notion of human imperfectibility. Her interrogations of Hoffman’s Flynn are seesaws of power. You can see his inner schism, of which he’s oblivious: generosity (the boy needs a father figure) side by side with entitlement. He has what Aloysius doesn’t: the privilege of patriarchy. Hoffman has a tendency to stress the grotesqueness of his characters, an instinct (possibly self-hating, yet sadistic toward the audience) he mistakes for integrity. His Father Flynn is one of his best performances because, all in all, he’s warm and likable. He doesn’t believe he’s a predator, so we can’t quite either. We understand why Sister James wants to see the good in his motives, and Amy Adams, with her cute little overbite that seems an extension of her eagerness, makes James’s struggle to shine extremely touching.
There is a fourth major performance, brief but breathtaking: Viola Davis as Donald’s mother. For many reasons, Mrs. Miller’s son has not been at home in his world, and the stairs to the next level keep getting knocked out from under him. Davis shows you a woman who, in her desperation, has moved beyond conventional morality, who has become single-minded for the sake of what she sees as her boy’s very survival. The position at first appears unconscionable bordering on actionable. But in the end, it’s her view that makes our hearts bleed.
Roger Deakins’s cinematography could hardly be crisper, more focused. There is no escaping the starkness of this universe: the white flesh, the deep blacks of the nuns’ garb, the gray skies, the brown leaves kicked up by winds. To underline the spiritual discombobulation, Shanley cuts from formal, symmetrical compositions to sudden, slanted ones. It is all, on one level, overdone, and there’s a touch—a lightbulb that explodes at especially fraught moments, as if overloaded by electrified synapses—that might be pushing it. In adapting his play, Shanley makes one serious mistake: Having introduced Donald as a character, he should have written a new scene in which the boy is questioned—especially since Joseph Foster makes such a deep impression in his few moments on-camera, with waves of neediness coming out of that small frame. But Doubt is still overpowering; it took me a while when it was over to stop shaking. It’s the dramatist’s business to sow doubt, to set down points of view that can’t be reconciled, and Shanley makes visceral the notion that one can be right but never absolutely right, that doubt might be our last, best hope.