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“Doubt,” John Patrick Shanley’s award-winning play and now a movie version he has directed, tackles the subject of pedophilia and paranoia in the Catholic Church in a subversive and perhaps even an unfair manner.
As with Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible,” this play’s witchhunt is based on nothing more than gossip. Only in this instance, Shanley hints the gossip might be true. This is a bit like doing the story of Sen. Joseph McCarthy and digging up a guy who, among the thousands he accused of being Red, actually is a communist.
However one reacts to this reversal of expectations, “Doubt” sets off dramatic fireworks thanks to a cast of antagonists that includes Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams. The film should find receptive adult audiences in December and could get an added boost when award-season honors trickle in. Nevertheless, the film will have its doubters.
In 1964 at St. Nicholas in the Bronx, the battle lines are clear. On one side is Sister Aloysius, an exquisite exaggeration of every Catholic schoolboy’s favorite tough nun horror story. As played by Streep, this school principal is the devil minus the Prada. An advocate of tradition and rigid authoritarianism, she stands firmly against change. Certainly the school’s first black student, Donald (Joseph Foster II), was not her idea.
On the other side is a charismatic, youthful priest, Father Flynn, who rides on the winds of change sweeping the Church in the wake of the Second Vatican Council. He favors a more open and friendly rapport with students that recognizes emotional needs, not just academic ones. As played by Hoffman, an actor capable of enormous warmth, you would want him as your father confessor.
Then Donald’s teacher, Sister James — Adams laying on the teary-eyed innocence far too heavily — has a suspicion. Father Flynn called Donald to the rectory one day and Donald returned with what she thought was the smell of alcohol on his breath. This is all it takes for Sister Aloysius go to war with Father Flynn. She declares she needs no proof of impropriety: “I have my certainty,” she declares.
Sister Aloysius’ meeting with Donald’s mother (Viola Davis in a very strong scene) contains the first hint that the truth will be murky at best. The mother’s only concern is that her son (who, she explains, is “that way”) will not be killed by a father who dislikes him. At least the priest is an adult male who takes time to help the boy, whatever his motives.
So Shanley’s shell games reveal itself: Father Flynn’s sunny exterior hides potential darkness, while Sister Aloysius’ crusty medievalism covers her own doubts and compassion. The problem will be that until the film’s final line, Streep’s old-school principal lacks transparency. There is never a flash of decency or concern for the boy in question. He is only a tool for her vengeance.
This stems partially from Shanley’s writing. He presents an old nun angry at anything new and modern. There is a constant, heavily metaphorical wind throughout the movie, and Sister Aloysius even mutters that the wind has changed from the old days. Someone who believes such things does not inspire confidence in her sixth sense for child predators.
Shanley has opened up the play for sequences outside the church and school to give a sense of a community buffeted not only by winds but outside events. Kennedy’s assassination still hangs heavily over the largely Irish and Italian parish.
Cinematographer Roger Deakins’ slanted camera angles portray a world where things are out of kilter. David Gropman’s production design emphasizes a bleak traditionalism that will soon explode into a counterculturalism that, at least from Shanley’s viewpoint, can lead to child abuse. The film is nothing if not provocative.
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