Film Review: Doubt

John Patrick Shanley opens up his Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning play, diluting some of its dramatic alchemy, but with its considerable strengths intact.

While the screen might not be the natural habitat of a work so perfectly suited to the stage, it’s rewarding to revisit John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt and marvel again at how invigorating uncertainty can be. This story of distrust and faith, set in 1964, a time of social change, pits Sister Aloysius, a tyrannical, fiercely self-righteous principal of a Bronx Catholic school, against a kinder, gentler servant of the church, Father Flynn, who may or may not have stepped over the line with an altar boy. It joins a raft of recently released serious, adult (in the best sense of the word) films that will not only contend for this year’s Oscars, but provide protein during the sugar-filled holiday season.

Of course, serious does not preclude funny, and Meryl Streep as Headmistress Sister Aloysius, the Grand Inquisitor of her domain, elicits her share of laughs, but never at the expense of her character. Although Streep’s Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada is a far cry from Sister Aloysius, both display an indomitable will and a will to dominate. They are impossible women, yet impossibly magnetic because Streep invests them with a rare authority.

Shanley introduces Sister Aloysius as an avenging black-clothed arm ready to smack any sleeping child in the pew, before panning up to show Streep’s stern, black-bonneted face. As the film proceeds, this easy-to-caricature figure evolves into a complex woman struggling to do what’s right (by her lights) with what little power she has as a woman in a rigid male hierarchy. The story never intends to solve the mystery; rather, it’s the exploration of moral complexity, the consequences of an accusation based largely on intuition, that make for satisfying drama.

Streep is well-matched with Philip Seymour Hoffman as Father Flynn. Unlike Streep and Brian F. O’Byrne (who memorably played Flynn on Broadway), Hoffman abjures a Bronx accent, removing one layer of theatricality. His Father Flynn is the modern voice of compassion, of a post-Vatican II church trying to connect to people through acceptance and love. But as Sister James (a luminous Amy Adams), the innocent novice teacher who first reports her doubts of the Father’s behavior to Sister Aloysius, repeats as a question after Father Flynn assures her that “there’s nothing wrong with love,” love? Hoffman, with his appealing Everyman’s face and physique, his restraint, and when needed, his fury, embodies his character’s doubt and the doubt of those around him, including the audience.

The film opens with Father Flynn’s sermon suggesting that “doubt can be a bond as sustaining as certainty.” But later in the film, when Father Flynn puts his arm around Donald Miller (Joseph Foster II), the school’s first black student who is struggling for acceptance among his Irish and Italian classmates, we realize, especially in light of recent scandals, that perhaps there is a reason to question.

The moral ambiguity is heightened during the film’s strongest scene, between Sister Aloysius and Donald’s mother, played with tremendous subtlety and depth by Viola Davis (Antwone Fisher), in which Mrs. Miller responds to Sister Aloysius’ suspicions with a perspective that takes the sister’s (and our) breath away. Here, set outside against a housing project on a bitter day, and elsewhere, Shanley, in his first film directing effort since the ill-starred Joe Versus the Volcano in 1990, opens up his work. Unlike the four-character play, the movie shows the real subject of the nuns’ concern, the children: in their classroom, with their families, and at Father Flynn’s sermons. We also see the priests drinking, laughing and smoking at dinner, and in the next shot, the nuns with their glasses of milk sitting silently at their meal. The location shooting heightens the context, but occasionally Shanley goes overboard, showing where words are not only enough, but more. Instead of relying on his wonderfully written (and beautifully delivered) sermon for Father Flynn likening gossip to the release of feathers in the wind, Shanley cuts from the pulpit to a street scene in which the gossiping housewife helplessly watches feathers fly in the Bronx breeze. He also could have done without the portentous weather signals: winds of change, storms of emotion, etc.

On a larger canvas, Doubt inevitably loses some of the intimacy and power it held in the theatre. When Father Flynn addressed his congregation on stage, we were it. Now there are people in period costumes in a real church looking up at him and we are looking at them, a step removed. But the dialogue and the characters still resonate, and the unanswered questions remain the most engaging of all.