John Patrick Shanley
- Meryl Streep as Sister Aloysius Beauvier
- Philip Seymour Hoffman as Father Flynn
- Amy Adams as Sister James
- Viola Davis as Mrs. Miller
John Patrick Shanley directs this adaptation of his own play which powerfully and ambiguously questions the nature of truth, certainty and religion. Doubt really dives into the conundrum and mystery of suspicion, bolstered by one exceptional cast doing fine work with deep material.
In 1964 , austere school principal and nun Sister Aloysius Beauvier runs a Catholic school in The Bronx, where she watches each and every move to keep others in line. She is a woman who strikes fear into the hearts of everyone and believes in discipline where her students are involved. Her ideas are of an old-fashioned mindset, which puts her at odds with popular priest Father Flynn. He is a seemingly kindly man who the children like and whose ideas are progressive in bringing the Church forward. Sister Aloysius has a deep dislike of him and after hearing a sermon that he delivers on the feelings of doubt, she asks young and naive Sister James to keep an eye on him. Shortly after this, Sister James reluctantly reveals that Donald Miller, the school’s first black student, returned from seeing Father Flynn in the rectory, crying and with the smell of alcohol on his breath. This convinces Sister Aloysius that there is something sinister about Father Flynn and she is certain that he has sexually abused the boy. Father Flynn denies any wrongdoing and tells her to leave it alone. But Sister Aloysius is not backing down and takes it upon herself, despite a lack of proof, to bring down Father for what she believes he has done. So begins a battle of wills between the relentless Sister Aloysius and Father Flynn , where the truth is the thing that lies at the complex centre of events but is hidden and speculated with unexpected results.
John Patrick Shanley successfully transports his play from the stage to screen with a subtle building in uneasiness and moral questioning. There is a high level of tense atmosphere at work in Doubt, generated through the way that the dialogue takes on multiple meanings and the tight surroundings that enclose the characters. canted angles and close-ups further enhance the engulfing intensity of the piece. The dark tones of the cinematography, supplied by the great , cement us in the dark and complex time and setting, rarely venturing further than the school for a feeling of deep claustrophobia. The limited setting hints at the movies origins as a play, yet help keep that very aura of intimate drama. Some of Doubt gets stagey from time to time, yet this niggle is quickly rectified by the provocative drama and time for rumination that it ultimately achieves. The amount of tension that fills the frames if the movie took me by surprise in a good way. I really was finding myself questioning who was right and wrong, plus whether personal vendettas and emotions were clouding the judgement of characters. There are those who watch Doubt and find its ambiguity distracting, but for most of us, this added level of intrigue gets you to really deliberate what you make of the combustible situation playing out. What people need to consider is that Doubt is as much a mystery about guilt, possible abuse of power and morality, as it is a drama. A quiet yet well suited score knows exactly when to appear and when to let scenes play out devoid of interference.
Meryl Streep heads the cast with another sterling performance. Burying herself in the self-righteous and stern head nun who is the chief accuser, Streep exudes a no-nonsense attitude( spoken in a harsh and convincing Bronx accent), tempered by a dry wit and occasional time for revelation. Yet the biggest accomplishment of her acting is in the balance of Sister Aloysius, in various subtle and expressive ways that hint at her being something different underneath her austere appearance . She is a fearsome person to say the least who may just be doing this to get rid of Father Flynn , but on the other hand, she seems to want to protect her student from what she believes is inappropriate and disturbing contact. There is a real complexity to this woman that Meryl Streep understands; Aloysius may believe that certainty is on her side, but she may in fact be feeling the strains of time pushing her further away from authority and clear judgement. Playing off her and facing off against her in very intense scenes is the excellent Philip Seymour Hoffman. He manages to make Father Flynn both amiable and somewhat questionable, lending a big dose of ambiguity to everything. With force and skill, Hoffman represents the accused as a man trying to bring the church up to date, and sparring with the pointed finger of Sister Aloysius for something he may or not have done. His scenes with Streep are filled with power and rising suspicion, culminating in an arresting coin which both stars really let loose. Amy Adams beautifully and with considerable nuance plays the sympathetic and good-hearted novice Sister James, who is essentially the audiences guide to being caught between two ends of the spectrum. A sweetness is present in the work that never becomes cloying because of how well Adams imbues the part with a questioning and conflicted heart. Stuck in the middle of both Father Flynn and Sister Aloysius, Sister James is forced to contend with both sets of possibilities, a challenge that Amy Adams more than rises to with a sensitive piece of acting. Rounding out the cast is the brief but superbly played performance from the wonderful Viola Davis. She stars as the mother of the boy who may have been abused and her screen time is mainly confined to one specific scene. But what a powerful and indelible scene it is! Filled with a sadness, conviction and acting in a way that may seem different from what you’d expect from a mother being informed of potentially horrifying treatment of her son, Viola Davis dramatically provides the catalyst of the story, that enables us to see things in a very different way. This is a performance that proves that you don’t need hours on screen to be memorable. The four main actors were all Oscar nominated for their work, and it isn’t any surprise why because of how convincingly they bring to life this thorny drama.
A thought-provoking and building triumph of unbearable tension and questions, Doubt succeeds at getting the audience to really consider the validity of supposedly benevolent actions and just how damaging things can become when there is lack of proof but plenty of speculation. It’s a testament to the acting and directing that Doubt never feels too stagey, instead mounted with a mystery and probing yet subtle approach. What we get is a powerful and intense film that leaves you really contemplating events long after the curtain has been drawn.