"Doubt", written and directed by John Patrick Shanley ("Moonstruck") and based on his critically acclaimed play, stars Meryl Streep in yet another powerful performance. But she isn't alone. Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams and Viola Davis each give outstanding performances helping this film stand out from the rest of the pack.
Set in the mid 60s, at a Catholic Parish back East, Father Flynn (Hoffman) is the charismatic young priest leading the whole parish. But Sister Aloysius, the elementary school principal and leader of the nuns who work on the grounds, has her suspicions about Father Flynn. She dislikes his modern ways, and seems particularly shocked when he suggests they include a secular song in the Christmas pageant. Sister Aloysius would rather rule over the children with fear, instilling the fear of God into them. Father Flynn would rather be kind. Aloysius turns to her flock of sisters and asks them to keep an eye open for anything suspicious. Sister James (Amy Adams) seems to take this to heart and considers it odd that Flynn calls one of her students, Donald Miller, the lone black student in the school, to his office for a private conversation. Later, she spots him putting something in Donald's locker. Aloysius immediately suspects Flynn of wrongdoing and confronts him. But she can do little else and he won't admit to anything. But she begins a campaign and will not stop until Flynn admits his wrongdoing and leaves. She turns to Mrs. Miller (Viola Davis), Donald's mother, for support.
Written and directed by John Patrick Shanley, I get the feeling this play was either based on something he personally experienced, whether he had first hand knowledge, or later learned of such a thing happening in a school just like the one he attended. He has provided a unique and seemingly extensive attention to detail, giving us a real feel for what life was like in this community, at this time in history. From an overhead shot of the community, watching various parishioners' head to Sunday service, to moments with Sister Aloysius and her nuns, Shanley makes us feel as though we are living through this with the characters.
He isn't content to depict just a small slice of life in this absorbing drama; he provides historical benchmarks, helping us place the story in a larger framework. There are some references to Kennedy's assassination; the children are clearly enamored of certain pop culture icons, indicative of the times. It is very clear these people populate the mid 60s.
But the most important benchmark helps establish the history and also provides the backbone for most of the story is that Donald Miller is the first and only black student in the school. He has a difficult time acclimating and many of the other children pick on him, getting into fights with him. But his mother is intent on him finishing his education there because she knows he will get accepted to a better high school and then a better college, greatly improving his life. Hi mother's devotion to him and her absolute conviction that he finishes his education at the Catholic school provides one of the most dramatic moments I have seen in recent film. It is also the one scene in which Viola Davis appears, for any length of time, with any dialogue, and she more than holds her own against Meryl Streep's powerful portrayal of Sister Aloysius. This is the scene that got Davis an Oscar nomination and will make her stand out among the rest of the pack.
As Streep's Sister Aloysius gets more and more frustrated with Father Flynn, we begin to get a fuller picture of her history. She isn't JUST frustrated with Father Flynn, and his encouragement to modernize the church, or his approval of including a secular song in the Christmas pageant, or his insistence that maybe they could all be nicer to the parishioners and the children. Although, all of these things probably serve to make Sister Aloysius' head explode on a nightly basis, she is frustrated most outwardly in what she deems inappropriate behavior by Father Flynn towards Donald.
When Sister James spots the suspicious moments, she runs back to her superior and reports, giving Sister Aloysius exactly what she needs and didn't want to use against Father Flynn. But they are mere accusations and she has no proof. So she must tread delicately at first.
This leads us to recognize what frustrates her the most. What eats away at her, silently, making her seethe and become more and more bitter by the day? She is frustrated that she has no power in the church. The men have all of the real power. Sure, she can wield a ruler and smack the children. She can cast a look at many of the children and make them practically pee their pants. But she can't bring an accusation against Father Flynn without evidence.
This fact leads to a powerful, extremely illuminating scene depicting the relationship between Father Flynn and the two nuns. And it shows so many levels of their relationship, giving us insight into some of the problems with the Catholic Church, problems that, to my limited knowledge, still exist today.
Streep's Sister Aloysius believes so strongly in her convictions, she continues to harangue Father Flynn and continues to try to uncover some evidence she can use.
Philip Seymour Hoffman is great as Father Flynn. As a man, he has the power in this church, and Flynn uses this knowledge to his own advantage. This aspect of the film was actually the most interesting for me; watching the three leads dance and shuffle around each other as they attempt to get to the bottom of information or situations, while always trying to ascertain who has the real power in any given moment.
Hoffman has a difficult role in that he has to appear powerful, in charge, but this is clearly not the case in some moments. When Flynn even realizes this, Hoffman has to show us Flynn's realization while maintaining the character's convictions. Flynn knows he can't let his guard down around the two women, so he exerts his power in subtle methods. In a way, these displays of power are meant to remind both the sisters and Father Flynn of his own power.
Sister James is eager to please and Adams brings a certain naiveté to the role, letting us believe she is fairly new to this work. She wants to make Sister Aloysius happy so she is very keen to help Sister get the information she wants and needs. Does this lead her to see things that don't really happen? This is part of the beauty of her character.
Shanley has done a great job, but the film doesn't completely escape its stage origins. Too much of the film depicts conversations between two or three people, isolating them from other people and events, focusing on what they are saying. In real life, people interrupt, we hear noises outside, they walk through a courtyard, and the world is larger. In a play, everything is smaller because of the limit of space and the necessity for scenery. It is a challenge to 'open up' a play when adapting it to the screen, but the most memorable adaptations accomplish this.
Don't get me wrong. I have the utmost respect for good playwrights, but film is a very different artistic medium and adapting plays to film is usually somewhat problematic.
"Doubt" is a very good film, but it never makes you forget it was born as a play.