A Review of John Patrick Shanley’s “Doubt”

Meryl Streep and Amy Adams in Doubt

CAPTION:  Meryl Steep and Amy Adams have some bad habits to break in Doubt.

Perhaps We’re not Meant to Sleep so Well…, 21 December 2008
8/10
Author: David H. Schleicher from New Jersey, USA

It seemed rather fitting that I saw Doubt on the first day of winter, the sun making its shortest visit of the year, the advancing cold indicative of the looming incertitude of the characters in the film. This is the second film in a row after Frost/Nixon that has been adapted from an award-winning play. Unlike that film, Doubt is directed by the playwright, John Patrick Shanley. Wisely he employs the best in the bizz, cinematographer Roger Deakins, to translate his theatrics into film language. The crooked camera angles, the overt symbolism of storms approaching, windows blowing open, snow covering the ground, crows squawking, and lights blowing out, all smack the viewer in the face. There’s no denying what lies at the heart of Doubt.

Set in New York in 1964, the film tells the story of Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep acting in her wheelhouse), the principal of Saint Nicholas’ School, who begins to suspect the new priest (Philip Seymour Hoffman, insidiously innocuous) is developing an inappropriate relationship with one of the altar boys, who also happens to be the school’s first African-American student. The naive Sister James (a perfectly cast Amy Adams) is at first pulled into Sister Aloysius’ plot to uncover the truth, but soon falls under the priest’s spell and is convinced of his innocence. But things aren’t so cut and dry, and soon both women are riddled with doubt after being so certain they were on the side of the just.

Some have claimed Streep’s performance verges on camp and that the film relies too much on Gothic overtones. However, anyone who was raised Catholic and attended Catholic school knew a nun just like her (mine was Sister Laboure), and her portrayal of a domineering principal who still defers to a higher power is nothing short of brilliant. Also, the Gothic nature of the film falls right in line with the traditions of Catholicism as it subtly hints at other crimes and sins in its sly treatment of secondary characters and plotlines that stir the audience’s imaginations not unlike Henry James worked readers into a tizzy with The Turn of the Screw over one hundred years earlier. Yes, there are moments where the film plays like a psychological thriller, and that’s part of its brilliance, for in no other way can we come to accept the sins but in the guise of horror.

Like Notes on a Scandal the film uses a salacious topic as a vehicle for an acting showcase. The fireworks amongst the three leads are worth the price of admission alone. In its treatment of the Catholic child abuse scandal, the film accurately portrays how insular the Church was (and still is) from the rest of the world and how easy it was for the accusations to be never voiced properly, or if they were, swept under the rug. In its closing scene of Streep and Adams finding solace in each other’s doubts on a bench in the dead of winter, Shanley seems to beg the audience for a little bit of sympathy on behalf of the Church. However, it left me thinking of an earlier scene where Hoffman’s priest asked Streep’s nun, “Where is your compassion?” To which Streep replied, “Nowhere you can get at it.” Perhaps any sympathy should be showered on the victims…for I feel nothing for the Church.  Doubt will leave you chilled, and like the Sisters, perhaps we’re not meant to sleep so well as long as the crimes continue.

Originally Published on the Internet Movie Database:

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0918927/usercomments-18

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4 comments on “A Review of John Patrick Shanley’s “Doubt”

  1. ccyager says:

    David, this sounds like just the movie I need this holiday week to soothe my sinner’s soul! (smile) I’m not Catholic, so it’ll be interesting to see if I can get into it as much as you did.

    It was especially interesting for me since I consider myself an ex-Catholic. I was raised Catholic and went to Catholic School, but I haven’t practiced since I was a teen, and to be honest, I never truly believed in any of it from the earliest I can remember. I used to torture the poor nuns with my endless questions. I guess I’ve always clung to my doubts. Let me know what you think of it! Sinners be saved! :) –DHS

  2. Sam Juliano says:

    David, I would have to say I’m pretty much on the same page with you here. This was surely a fireworks display of great acting, and the film does have “gothic” overtones, even if that is largely the result of the autumnal setting, which you render so descriptively. There are certainly issues centering around the stage-to-screen adaptation, and whether Shanley should have’ opened it up, but in the end, I think aggressive cinemative accentation may well have compromised the film’s essence. Excellent comparison there with NOTES ON A SCANDAL too. Interestingly enough, I must tell you that after the Broadway show ended, you favored the conclusion that the priest was innocent; after the film, you kinda felt the opposite. In any case, it’s an atmospheric and powerful piece (not without flaws) and you have done it full justice with this engaging essay.

    Thanks, Sam. I had no doubts about the priest’s guilt, only about how his crimes were addressed by the Sisters and the Church. –DHS

  3. ccyager says:

    OK, David, now I’ve seen this movie, I have to say that such a gem of an adult movie dealing with mature ideas/issues/ themes is such a rarity these days! While you described the acting as “fireworks,” I’d call it superb and necessary for this story. What I really loved was that Shanley chose to tell this story from POV characters rather than from the POV of the omniscient camera, so the viewer has only the information that Sisters Aloysius and James have. The viewer becomes them. So, the issues of “certainty” vs. “doubt” and “uncertainty” vs. “proof” are cleverly and uncomfortably presented, at least for me. There IS no certainty about Father Flynn. No one bothered to talk with Donald Miller about him which I found particularly interesting. And because of the hierarchical structure, nothing is done about Sister Aloysius’s suspicions. They become buried in the hierarchy.

    I also thought it interesting that Shanley chose that particular time and place, when the issues are timeless and could occur in any situation. So I conclude that he wanted to comment also on “faith” in the religious sense, and specific to the Catholic church. I think this is underscored in the very last scene, when we find out a stunning truth about Sister Aloysius (why, oh why, did he choose such a difficult name to spell!?).

    Human beings have a hard time living with uncertainty. As with Sister A, often they will do anything to create certainty for themselves. So the challenges of faith and doubt…..

    I’d recommend this movie to everyone, even older teens.

    You make some excellent points! I did, however, have no doubt about the priest’s guilt because of his reaction to Streep’s character after she told him she had called his previous parish. An innocent man would not have reacted to her in the way he did, and the Sister knew it. –DHS

  4. ccyager says:

    Ah, good point about the phone call, David. But I think Sister James had the last word on it when she stated that Sister A had had no proof that anything had happened with Miller….(smile)

    This is true, but I still think he did it. –DHS

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