Tuesday, December 23, 2008


written for the screen and directed by John Patrick Shanley
starring Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman

I felt a little like Sister Aloysius Beauvier walking out of this movie. I had such doubts...I had such doubts. Doubt is a film that is best viewed for its part rather than as a whole. Why? Because there are parts of this movie that work quite well. Namely, the one part of the film that people are singling out--Viola Davis's confrontation with Meryl Streep. As a whole, does the entire piece come together? It's hard to say. But the piece is a valiant effort from John Patrick Shanley, who adapted it from his own Pulitzer Prize winning play.

By now, everyone surely knows the premise. It's a Catholic school in the Bronx, 1964. St. Nicholas school is run with an iron fist by Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Meryl Streep) who loves structure, hates laziness (and ballpoint pens) and progressiveness of any nature. She is feared by everyone, the children and the other nuns alike. "They're all uniformly terrified of you," says the sweet but naive Sister James (Amy Adams). Relishing in this fact, Sister Beauvier replies "That's how it works." Which is why, I suppose, she's so put-off by Father Flynn (a surprisingly good Philip Seymour Hoffman. And as you know, I find him to be generally overrated, so that means a lot). Father Flynn is very progressive. He represents the change in the Catholic church, marked by Vatican II (the second Vatican council. Sorry, Catholic school brat here. It's really not that interesting), which left some traditionalists (like Sister Beauvier) feeling betrayed, and paved the way for a more progressive mindset (read: more progressive. The Catholic chuch is not now, nor will it ever be "progressive"). The school has also recently admitted its first black student, Donald Miller. Aloysius and Father Flynn are both sympathetic, but in different ways. "This parish serves Italians and Irish-Americans. Donald Miller will be hit and when it happens, send them to me," Aloysisus warns Sister James. Father Flynn chooses a more hands-on approach, encouraging Donald in sports, helping him as an altar server, etc. And one day, he calls Miller to the rectory alone. Sister James later smells altar wine on his breath and lets it slip to Sister Aloysius. "So," she breathes menacingly. "It's happened." Yes indeed, it has.

Doubt's weaknesses are probably what made the play such a success on Broadway. It's not subtle. At all. There is a pretty blunt cat and mouse metaphor early on in the movie that actually made me roll my eyes in the theater. Shanley relies on thunderclaps and wind during the big confrontation between Sister Aloysius and Father Flynn (cool it on the pathetic fallacy, Shanley. You're not on stage). Canted camera angles for no other reason I can see than that this is Shanley's first film and he's experimenting. Some reviews have suggested that the canting represents a voyeuristic feel, possibly that of an omnipresent observer (hint hint)--a notion that I think is seriously reaching and characteristic of many reviews, which want to make apologies and rationalize away several of this film's obvious weaknesses.

Meryl Streep may very well win an Oscar for this performance. Whether she deserves it or not is another matter entirely. I was surprised by how much of Streep's performance felt, dare I say, phoned-in. Her Bronx accent dips in and out quite noticeably. She reduces Aloysius to inconsistent ticks and mannerisms that seem at war with one another. It's not a bad performance (can Streep give a bad performance), but years from now, no one will rank this among her best, and certainly not the best female performances of this year.

Viola Davis impresses just as most reviewers have said she does. The role of Mrs. Miller, however brief, is pivotal. She faces off against Meryl Streep in the film's most important scene that knocks the entire narrative off its axis. But what she does, she does superbly well. With Davis and Penelope Cruz the only true "locks" in the supporting actress category, they're both likely duking it out for the win. Don't be surprised if it's Davis's name that gets called on Oscar night.

Hoffman as an actor is shaggy and unkempt in ordinary life, almost to the point of being off-putting. Many, including myself say he's overrated. Read: not a bad actor, just overrated. But here, he is serviceable. He cleans up nicely in this film and is polished, warm and inviting in all the ways that Father Flynn needs to be. Still, I can't help but think that a better version of this adaptation could have existed with Angelica Huston as Sister Aloysius (come on. You never thought of it, but isn't it just perfect?), Campbell Scott as Father Flynn and Michelle Williams as Sister James (who I think would be better at selling the supposed emotional layers than Amy Adams). They can keep Viola Davis.

Grade: B

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