Starring: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Meryl Streep, and Amy Adams
Directed by: John Patrick Shanley
Doubt is a subtle movie about an extremely sensitive subject that does a great job at drawing its audience in and leave them questioning right and wrong. John Patrick Shanley’s simple touches mixed with incredible performances by the starring cast make this movie that feels more like a play at times deeply personal. Even though the stage is set using controversy within the Catholic Church, Shanley pulverizes the typical Hollywood formula of white-hat/black-hat good vs. evil on a secular level. A viewer that isn’t questioning the world after this movie hasn’t truly watched the movie.
Sister Alyousis Beauvier (Streep) is the head nun at the parish and is also the parish’s school principal. Her traditional values don’t blend well with dynamic priest Father Brendan Flynn (Hoffman). After a student at the school returning from a private meeting with Father Flynn with alcohol on his breath, Sister James (Adams) alerts Sister Alyousis of this bizarre occurrence. Sister Alyousis strongly suspects that Father Flynn is carrying on inappropriate relationships with some of the boys. Confronted, Father Flynn denies the accusations, but Sister Alyousis is determined to prove her suspicions.
The movie is shot in a way that feels incredibly intimate, as if it’s a stage play without being restricted to one stage. This makes sense since Shanley adapted the film from his stage play of the same name. It has an intimate feel, with most of the movie taking place at a few locations. Despite it’s intimate feel, the movie world feels so large, mostly because you feel that similar scenes are taking place throughout America during this time period.
Imagery is an important detail in this film. Shanley employs several techniques to draw in the audience in and create additional narration for the story. The most obvious one is blowing leaves, which relates to a sermon Father Flynn gives about gossip. The length of Father Flynn’s nails is also a neat subtle touch to show that perhaps Father Flynn is not what he seems. Other techniques, such as scenes where the camera is askew don’t really hit their mark and come off more stylish rather than substantive.
Even though every artful technique doesn’t necessarily leave an indelible mark on the audience, this is not a movie exclusive to film snobs. The story itself is interesting enough to carry it through without needing finessing. Yet, Doubt’s use of imagery gives it much more depth. There are some scenes that people may have different interpretations of what’s happening, which is fine because the story itself is a balance between two opposing sides.
Shanley does a masterful job painting the portrait, but the main actors provide vibrant colour to a film that shows very little of it. Both Hoffman and Streep are fantastic in their roles. Hoffman is so subtle with his charismatic charm that it’s easy to see why he seems to warm his way into people’s lives. Streep, on the other hand, is more over the top in being the woman you don’t want to cross because you won’t hear the end of it. She gives Sister Alyousis an iron-lady like persona but allows slight visible cracks to show that this person has a heart and soul.
The supporting cast shines here too. Adams is also great in her supporting role as Sister James who ends up being the tennis ball in between Father Flynn and Sister Alyousis. Adams provides the emotional fragility that shows how difficult it is to be caught up between these two strong characters. Viola Davis, who plays Mrs. Miller stands out for the brief time she’s on the screen. Even though visually you can see a woman who is deeply conflicted about what’s best for her son and him potentially being prey for a predator, you can feel in your soul the tornado that’s ravaging her heart.
It’s not always perfect. The script sometimes doesn’t hold up it’s end of the bargain. It feels like character direction happens spontaneously, like when Sister James informs Sister Alyousis about Father Flynn’s behaviour, and she immediately jumps to a very heinous conclusion. Even Sister James’s suspicion of Father Flynn happens rather quickly. It would have made the movie flow better had there been more seeds sown to show Sister James eventually mistrust of Father Flynn rather than almost changing on a dime.
John Patrick Shanley does a masterful job with Doubt. He takes his play and perfectly transitions it into a cinematic gem. It handles the complex and sensitive topic of abuse in the Church without taking a position on the religion itself. There are so many shades of gray here that you don’t know who to believe until the final scenes of the film. Hoffman, Streep, Adams, and Davis put on masterclasses in acting. It does deal with sensitive and triggering content, but it is a film that everyone should see.
This movie was originally reviewed on this site on January 3, 2009. The review has been revised as I didn’t feel the original writing was well written. The review score remains the same. Film stills were added for this version.