Movie Review: Doubt
The Charlotte Observer
A magnificent actress never gives a bad performance, but she may occasionally give a wrong performance. That's what I think Meryl Streep has done in “Doubt,” unbalancing John Patrick Shanley's play. Shanley wrote his own screenplay and directed in melodramatic style, so he presumably knows what we wanted – but is he right?
His play came to Charlotte last year with Cherry Jones, who won a 2005 Tony in the role, as a nun who becomes convinced her parish priest molested a boy at the school where she's the principal.
“Who becomes convinced” is the key phrase: She searches for evidence to confirm her fears, triggering a harrowing final scene. The movie opens up the settings of the play but follows its spirit faithfully, with this exception: Streep's Sister Aloysius is so humorlessly rigid, so pinch-faced and sour in condemnation of every minuscule offense against her view of propriety, that we invariably start to take the side of Philip Seymour Hoffman's accused Father Flynn – and the last moments of the script become false.
The story takes place in New York City in 1964, decades before the stories of widespread and unpunished child abuse in the church.
Shanley has never said whether he wants us to think the priest is guilty: The point is that action out of moral certainty can cause havoc. But whether or not we think Father Flynn culpable in his attentions to 12-year-old Donald Miller (Joseph Foster II), we have no doubt that small-minded Sister Aloysius impedes the church's progress toward deeper, more humane relationships with parishioners. (The Second Ecumenical Council of the Vatican, aka Vatican II, was under way at the time and about to modernize Catholic practices.)
“Doubt,” which also won the Tony for best drama, has a lot on its plate. A naive nun (Amy Adams) offends Sister Aloysius by proposing secular songs for a Christmas pageant, and this gentle creature has her eyes opened to the dangers of unthinking sanctity. Because Donald is black, questions of bigotry arise: His mother (Viola Davis, multilayered in her one scene) suggests she's willing to overlook alleged indiscretions, if they give Donald the father figure he lacks at home and help him get into a decent high school. There's also a hint that Donald, who's lonely and may be gay, initiated any contact.
Shanley does himself few favors as director. Davis speaks her wrenching monologue with a glob of snot on her face, left there for unneeded pathos. Sister Aloysius is surrounded by leaf-whirling winds and rainstorms; light bulbs explode twice over her head, presumably to mark her as a Bringer of Darkness. Shanley also shoots characters at odd angles to emphasize moments of danger or disorientation, a trick many directors abandon after film school.
Blessedly, the kernel of the writing remains undisturbed, and its arguments are still powerful. Hoffman is both sympathetic and slightly strange, so we can believe whatever we like about him, and he's a fitting opponent for Streep when the Oscar winners go head-to-head. In the end, we're forced to examine our own beliefs, as the writer intended – even if Sister Aloysius doesn't examine hers.