Doubt, Dir. John Patrick Shanley (2008)

From left: Philip Seymour Hoffman (Father Flynn), Amy Adams (Sister James), Photo:Miramax/Everett / Rex Features/Guardian

From left: Philip Seymour Hoffman as Father Flynn, Amy Adams as Sister James Photo:Miramax/Everett/Rex Features

Rating: 5/6

The film is based on Shanley’s own Pulitzer -prize winning play and so already carries some critical kudos and certainly makes for a promising enterprise. The scenario is relatively simple and based on many current as well as past news events.

It’s about a priest, Father James Flynn the brilliant Phillip Seymour Hoffman (seemingly now the go-to guy for humanistic portrayals of paedophiles, see the disturbing Happiness) who is accused of interfering (to put it politely) with the only black boy, Donald Miller (Joseph Foster)  in a Catholic school in 1964.

Sister Aloysius Beauvier ,the impeccable Meryl Streep, is the determined and forthright dragon of a nun who confronts him.  While Sister James, a convincing Amy Adams, is the naive ingenue who still believes that Flynn could be innocent.

From this the film looks like it could be  a very weighty affair and no doubt (no pun intended, ok well maybe it is) it is  rather weighty dealing with issues of responsibility, faith in your own conscience and righteousness, and questions of authority and  morality.

These themes are dealed with on the whole in a way that is engaging. And while Flynn’s guilt is never really truly in doubt, and so could be seen to ruin the dramatic crux of the film.  Hofffman nevertheless gives a riveting performance as a man who knows he did wrong and acts likes a cornered animal.

At times he bites and snaps at  Aloysius’s interrogations by asserting his authority as priest, and giving loaded sermons about the malicious nature of gossip. While at other times he simpers and pleads, his fear palpable. And dare I say it he becomes almost sympathetic asking of Sister Aloysius if she hadn’t ever done anything wrong?

Father Flynn’s complexity as a character is one of the great strengths of this film, he is presented at  first as a sympathetic character. A man who looks after Donald where others ostracise him for his race.

This gives us scope to see why Sister James still believes in him and why Doanld’s own mother (a perfect Viola Davis who in a crucial scene with Streep manages to hold her own and some) doesn’t want to pursue charges against him. His father already beating him for his percieved abnormal sexuality (he is a pawn piece between two extremes of emotions).

Where the film really works too is in the unexpected moments of humour.  Streep, though portraying a dowdy matriach, manages to convey a sense of mischievousness in Sister Aloysius; giving us the impression that her sense of fun is  only restrained by her duty as head nun.

For example when she discovers a boy waiting outside Father Flynn’s office for talking she promptly tells him “well, go back and shut up then.” Or when Father Flynn appeals to her with a: “Where is your compasssion?”, she promptly replies: “Nowhere where you can get at it.” While after a particualrly brutal interrogation Sister Aloysius asks what the sermon he is writing is on, he deftly replies “intolerence.”

The dramatic nature of the themes are also addressed visually and symbolically with tilted camera angles in the interrogation scenes, expressionist shadow and the motif of the lightbulb breaking and phone ringing as the atmosphere gets increasingly charged with tension.

This works well at times but at other times this symbolism can be a bit heavy handed particuarly when lightning strikes and tree branches break during  a particualr dramatic moment showing up the fact that Shanley is new to film-making .

Overall the film doesn’t disappoint, it is a brilliant treatise on the tricky nature of certainty and faith, morality and authority with some brilliant dialogue and tour de force acting from Hoffman, Streep and Davis.  Not to mention Adams who manages to hold her own amidst the heavyweights.

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1 Comment

  1. (the impeccable Meryl Streep) amen to that.


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