Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Viola Davis
WRITTEN AND DIRECTED BY
John Patrick Shanley
I am an actor's film critic.
What do I mean?
I live for a film like "Doubt," written and directed by John Patrick Shanley based upon his own stage play.
"Doubt," the stage play, is an intellectual game of cat-and-mouse that toys, not so much with its audience's emotions, but with its thought processes, beliefs and sense of belief.
Unless you live under a rock, and perhaps even if you do, you have an opinion about the Catholic Church and its history with sexual abuse.
"Doubt," both the stage play and the film, are set in 1964...before the hysteria that began to recognize the comprehensive, organized and intentional failure of the Catholic Church and its leaders to protect its children.
Not that I have an opinion.
"Doubt" is set in 1964, in what appears to be a small urban parish with an accompanying school. The parish is led by Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a jovial priest who preaches in relaxed tones and verbalizes a determination to make his parish and the school a more friendly, inviting place to learn and worship.
This means, of course, that Father Flynn will butt heads with the school's principal, Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep), a crusty ole' broad with subtle touches of simple humanity woven throughout the film.
When Sister James (Amy Adams) observes the Father carrying on a private meeting with Donald (Joseph Foster II), a new student at the school and the school's only Black student, and later placing what appears to be Donald's soiled shirt back in his locker, she wrestles with her uncomfortable intuition for a week before reporting it to Sister Aloysius.
There begins verbal swordplay between Father Flynn and Sister ALoysius, brought magnificently to life by the stand-out performances from Hoffman and Streep.
Truthfully, there's a good chance I enjoyed "Doubt" a bit more than you will.
First, as previously noted, I am an actor's film critic. I love a film in which it is the acting that is center stage, and "Doubt" is one of 2008's finest examples of such a film.
It is astounding to think that in 2008, Meryl Streep has given us two more Oscar-worthy performances and they differ greatly. In "Mamma Mia," she was vibrant and musical and joyous. In "Doubt," Streep is intense and somber and absolute.
"Doubt" reminds me why Streep has long been my favorite actress. She does things onscreen and finds places within her characters that are literally transcendent.
Likewise, Philip Seymour Hoffman may very well be in for yet another Oscar nomination this year. Hoffman plays the near polar opposite of Streep, and despite what's bound to be a preconceived bias on this very issue Hoffman manages to make you have a doubt about his guilt...or his innocence. As Father Flynn, Hoffman is so understated that one doesn't realize until hours after viewing the film how much his performance has permeated the senses.
Likewise, Amy Adams was a stellar choice for Sister James (though it has been noted that Natalie Portman turned down the part). Sister James needed to be a young woman filled to the brim with hopefulness and love and faith, only to slowly dissolve into a whirlwind of doubt and a crisis of faith. Adams exudes Sister James's early innocence, however, her facade begins to crack as the doubts increase.
In what amounts to one extended scene, Viola Davis is enthralling as Donald's mother, Mrs. Miller. When Sister Aloysius confides in her the suspicions she has, it seems at first unfathomable the reaction of Mrs. Miller. Yet, as we listen to her words, we begin to understand more than we even want to how years of sexual abuse could go unreported. Davis, who received a National Board of Review award for Best Breakthrough Performance, is not out of the question for a Supporting Actress Oscar nomination despite her limited screen time.
Joseph Foster, as well, gives a strong supporting performance as the young man in question, while the rest of the supporting ensemble also have moments to shine.
The cinematography of Roger Deakins ("No Country for Old Men") paints the urban New York City locale in muted colors while Howard Shore's original score nicely accents the building crisis between the key players.
There are two other key reasons why "Doubt" may resonate a tad more with me than it does with a wider audience.
First, the theme of sexual abuse has never been prime box-office material. As a sexual abuse survivor myself, I embrace Hollywood's realistic and sensitive portrayal of the subject and I've long hoped that Hollywood would tackle "Doubt."
Secondly, "Doubt" is an intellectual film. It is not a film that is meant to invade your senses, say in the way that Tim Roth's "The War Zone" did or the more recent "Blue Car." Rather, "Doubt" goes beneath the surface action and looks at the systemic issues that allowed it to happen...the absolute faith without doubt, the patriarchy of the Catholic Church and the inherent inferiority of women in said church. "Doubt" will have you "thinking" love after you leave the theatre, but it may very well disturb you how little you actually "feel" as the credits roll.
This is not to say that all is well within "Doubt."
Perhaps because he is so close to the material, Shanley occasionally feels the need to over-emphasize his symbolism. On the flip side, Shanley may be a touch too trusting that the audience will have an advance knowledge of Catholic ritual. Vital scenes, including the film's closing minutes, including powerful revelations that may leave some audience members scratching their heads going "So what?"
If you understand, however, it will hit resoundingly.
"Doubt," as previously noted, is based upon a stage play and, as an actor's film, occasionally does feel staged. If you can immerse yourself in the stellar performances and intense dialogue, then you will be fine. However, if you are the type to fidget if movies "talk" too much then "Doubt" may not be the film for you.
Intellectually stimulating and thought provoking, "Doubt" features three of 2008's finest performances.
Of that, I have no doubt.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic