As a Broadway play Doubt ran for over a year, earning four Tony awards, including Best Play and Best Actress. As a film, starring Meryl Streep, Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams, it is bound to earn several acting nominations come Oscar time, but I’m afraid it won’t earn awards for directing or Best Picture.
Set in the Bronx in 1964, Doubt centers on a nun, Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Streep), who confronts a priest (Hoffman) after suspecting him abusing the school’s only African-American student (Joseph Foster). Of course he denies the charges and looks to Sister James (Amy Adams) for support.
Doubt starts off slowly. A little too slowly. Director, playwright and screenwriter John Patrick Shanley takes his time establishing a sense of time and place at the expense of the movie’s momentum. We meet the characters: Hoffman’s charming down-to-earth priest, Adams’s naïve nun and Streep’s terrifying nunzilla. Each are introduced and we learn something of their lives and routines, and while some of it is interesting—there is even the odd laugh here and there—the movie doesn’t pick up steam until an hour and a quarter in, but it is worth the wait.
With the introduction of Viola Davis as Mrs. Muller, the frazzled mother of the young boy in question Doubt catches fire. Her showdown with the formidable Sister Aloysius contains some of the best written and best performed dialogue of the year. It’s an unsettling, surprising sequence that raises points about the flexibility of morality in extreme instances. Davis is on screen no more than six or seven minutes but will likely earn an Oscar nod for her work.
From that point on Doubt is one of the most compelling films of the year. Shanely carefully unveils the story to leave both the characters and the audience wondering what is true and what isn’t.
Doubt, like so many films this year, is a movie whose performances are better than the film itself. Hoffman expertly toggles back and forth between Father Flynn’s personality extremes—a controlling nature tempered by a large dollop of charm while Adams is all wide eyed naiveté.
They’re impressive, but Streep steals the show. Her Sister Aloysius is like an onion which reveals itself one layer at a time. When we first meet her she is the stereotypical strict nun, ruling her school by fear. When she calls one boy to the office for a minor infraction Father Flynn comments, “the dragon is hungry today.” She’s an anachronism, a woman whose ordered world is changing too quickly. Unable to keep up she thinks the song Frosty the Snowman espouses pagan beliefs and the ball point pen is a vehicle of change for the worse. “Every easy choice will have a consequence tomorrow.” She’s old school, but under that hard-line exterior is a deeply caring person who will not be pushed around.
When she accuses Father Flynn, her superior in the chain of command, of inappropriate behavior he says, “I can fight you!” “You will lose,” she snaps back, unafraid. It’s powerful stuff, made even more effective by Streep’s performance. The battle scenes between these two, complete with tightly written verbal warfare, are as dynamic and exciting as any action scene I’ve seen in a movie this year.
Doubt is a beautifully performed guessing game, with dynamite dialogue and thought provoking views on morality, religion and authority. It’s hard to believe that the same man who wrote this also penned Joe and the Volcano.