Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams
4 out of 5 stars
Reviewed for Coffeerooms by Mike Jefferson
No doubt about it, this is one powerful film.
"Doubt" is a no nunsense tale of morality played out by a troupe of actors blessed with divine talent. The script occasionally lags under the weight of Catholic guilt, but it's not hard to see why "Doubt's" four leads were blessed with Oscar nominations.
"Doubt" takes place in 1964, the year after John F. Kennedy's assassination, in the midst of The Beatles' ascension, when the winds of social change were slowly beginning to blow. At St. Nicholas in the Bronx, Father Flynn (Phillip Seymour Hoffman, projecting a man-of the-people image), is a liberal-minded priest respected by students and faculty alike for his progressive ideas, topical sermons, and pleasant demeanor. Sister Aloysius, the school's principal (Meryl Streep, effectively portraying every Catholic student's nightmare), rules through fear, believing that transistor radios, ball point pens, and a loosening of the school's strict rules of conduct will erode the very fabric of the nation. Neophyte Sister James (a wonderfully astonished Amy Adams) notices Father Flynn is paying an usual amount of attention to Donald Miller, the school's first and only black student (who's also an altar boy). She shares her concern with Sister Aloysius, who concludes Father Flynn is a pedophile in priest's robes. She seizes the opportunity to rid herself and the school of a man she believes to be a free-thinking fraud. Is Sister Aloysius championing a witch hunt, or a righteous crusade? A war of wills ensues between Father Flynn and Sister Aloysius that tests both faith and fortitude:
Father Flynn: I will fight you.
Sister Aloysius: You will lose.
Father Flynn: Where's your compassion?
Sister Aloysius: Nowhere you can get at it.
What brought "Doubt" so eerily close to my heart were my own experiences in a Catholic School in the mid-60s as their lone "Negro." I attended public school, but our administrators got the bright idea to start an exchange program - some of the Catholic school kids would get to experience the freedom of a public education, while some of us commoners were selected to try and deal with the terror and rigidity of St. Francis of Assisi. My experiences during that year weren't exactly like Donald Miller's, but there were enough similarities to make me wonder if writer/director John Patrick Shanley had probed my mind for his plot.
Like Donald, I was granted the privilege of being an altar boy. I lost my prestigious position when my fellow altar boy and I decided to experiment with the house wine. We nearly faked our way through the service until my partner practically flattened Father O'Brien with a six foot cross. Both of us were terminated after the service -- in the midst of being questioned, my partner deposited his portion of the wine on Father O'Brien's buffed Brogans.
Like Donald, I had a mentor, Sister Michael, who was determined to look after her "shining star." Some of the other kids razzed me after she gave me a generous hug in the hall -- similar to the one Donald gets from Father Flynn, although I can't stress enough that I was hugging a woman and enjoying it. Fortunately for me, the other kids embraced me rather than ridiculed me, but there was no doubt Catholic school was a far stricter environment than this heathen was used to.
Bravo to John Patrick Shanley for recreating the sights and sounds of his childhood that prevailed in his Bronx neighborhood. From the solid steel sedans, to the ankle-length skirts, tenements with clothesline strung out like high wires, Brylcreemed boys and Donna Read coiffed girls, every image and accent says 1964.
The acting is uniformly brilliant. Phillip Seymour Hoffman is at his best when he projects the "new Catholicism," displaying a kind heart and a friendly, outgoing countenance toward his students. His good guy sheen takes a hit when he grows uncomfortable with Sister Aloysius' accusations. Then he acts like a blacklisted 50's Hollywood writer battling Joe McCarthy's Communist accusations - did he, or didn't he molest Donald Miller? The closer he thinks Sister Aloysius is getting to the truth, the more he sweats, chuffs and looses his composure. You never know for sure if he's telling the truth, or Sister Aloysius is. Genuflect to the talented dude with the white collar.
Meryl Streep continues to cement her reputation as one of filmdom's best actresses. Sister Aloysius is downright frightening, the type of yardstick wielding, bitter harpy who ruled the hallways of Catholic schools in the 60s. Chew gum in her presence and it'll wind up on your nose, talk in class and you get ejected, and the number of Hail Mary's you're forced to write will be based on the severity of your offense. She enters the film like a poisonous gas, seeping onto the screen, telling students listening to Father Flynn's sermon to sit up or shut up as she breezes past them. Streep also gives Sister Aloysius a tough Bronx veneer complete with a gun moll's accent - if her actions don't demonstrate she's no shrinking violet, then the tone of her voice will. She's The Wicked Witch of the West in a habit, so obsessed with fulfilling her personal campaign to have Father Flynn kicked from the pulpit that she's willing to break her most sacred vows.
Amy Adams plays naive, innocent Sister James. With her eyes wet with wonderment, Adams makes you want to give poor confused Sister James a hug. As the bystander who unwittingly sets the power play between Father Flynn and Sister Aloysius in motion, she's a Greek chorus, the audiences' eyes, ears and conscience. Like the viewer she's torn between the two characters, believing Flynn's sincere claim of innocence one moment and Sister Aloysius' single-minded determination the next.
Viola Davis is in two scenes - and the second time she appears in a crowd and doesn't speak - yet her presence hangs over the film like the scent of burning candles at a confirmation. Her small scene with Meryl Streep as Donald Miller's mother is the film's most singularly moving moment. Davis' hardworking mother has sacrificed her own life to get her son into St. Nicholas because she hopes graduating from the school will be a stepping stone to a better life. But she also harbors the secret that Donald is damaged goods - he's puzzled sexuality, depressed by his father's lack of love and physical abuse and he's treated like a pariah at school. Mrs. Miller knows Donald is crumbling and sees Father Flynn as his savior, as the only man who's ever cared about him. Davis packs an emotional six-pack into her scene, ranging from being quietly cagey to indignant and protective. Oscar worthy? No, she's not on screen long enough. If you leave the room for popcorn you'll miss her appearance. But any actress who can pull your attention away from Meryl Streep playing a character as frighteningly memorable as Sister Aloysius certainly deserves all the praise that was heaped upon her.
I've already commented in other reviews that child actors make me wish I was watching their performances live so I could pick them off with a howitzer like clay pigeons in a circus shooting gallery. The kids of St. Nicholas were competent enough to keep me from wishing I could sacrifice them at the altar. The character of Donald Miller is little more than a suffering siphon; but Joseph Foster has a way of misting up or making his features droop that hits you in the gut. Mike Roukis plays class tormentor William London with confidence and defiance. The smile that slides across his playboy features in his last scene proves that as in real life, bullies aren't always brought to task for their transgressions.
There's very little to complaint about... but here I go! Donald Miller is seen, by seldom heard. He looks properly petrified, confused and abandoned, but we never really get to gauge the passage of events through his point of view or his words. Even the wine guzzling that seals his fate as an altar boy takes place off camera, and there is precious little dialogue between Donald and Father Flynn that's revealing. But as I noted in the previous paragraph, Joseph Foster has the ability to look like Christ suffering on the cross. It's also impossible to ignore Shanley's heavy-handed usage of the weather, particularly the wind as an allegorical symbol, i.e. "wind of change," "a cruel wind," or his employing a sudden clap of thunder when a meaningful point is being driven home. C'mon John, we don't need divine intervention. The ending is a bit too tidy and abrupt as well. After the moral tug of war between Sister Aloysius and Father Flynn that spawns several harsh no holds barred confrontations, one of the characters is quickly shuttled off screen, while the other suffers a hitherto unthinkable attack of conscience.
You have to love a film that sets you up to draw you own conclusions. "Doubt" may leave you questioning your own faith or the piety of those who tell us to trust their judgment - and maybe that's not such a bad thing.