DoubtWritten and directed by John Patrick ShanleyStarring Meryl Streep, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams and Viola DavisRated PG-13*6*
Goes well with: Priest, Deliver Us From Evil, Capturing the Friedmans
I've never understood Catholics. Being raised in a fairly secular household didn't help, so it turns out that virtually everything I know about the church I've learned from TV, movies and the news. When I've had the occasion to attend a Catholic wedding, I've had to ask whoever took me what's going on and why, and more often than not, I've responded by asking, “Really? Are you serious?”
All that is to say that when the Catholic-priest sex-abuse allegations came to light a few years ago, it was hard to be surprised. For those of us on the outside, the practice of forcing celibacy on priests is a recipe for disaster. Sure, not all of them give in to temptation and their hormones, but it just takes the occasional priest dipping into the pool of altar boys that makes secular folk like me distrustful of, well, all of them.
Unlike me, playwright and Oscar-winner (Moonstruck) John Patrick Shanley grew up Irish Catholic and knows a thing or two about how it all works. Shanley won a Pulitzer Prize for his play Doubt, and now he's adapted and directed it for the screen, his first trip behind the camera since he helmed Joe Versus the Volcano way back when. The stakes here are high—a nun is accusing a priest of molesting a student. And Shanley has tapped two of the world's finest actors to gnaw on his trademark dialogue.
Meryl Streep is Sister Aloysius, the fire-breathing matriarch of a Catholic school in New York in 1964. She's nasty, keeping the students and the nuns in line with an iron ruler. But her biggest problem isn't a boy shooting spitballs—it's the popular priest Father Flynn (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), who is less interested in keeping everyone in line than he is in supporting his students and his community. He's a progressive, and she can't stand him. But her opportunity arises when naïve young nun Sister James (Amy Adams) tells her that she suspects something unsettling might have happened between Father Flynn and Donald Miller (Joseph Foster), an altar boy and the school's first African-American pupil.
Here's where Shanley earned his Pulitzer, by presenting a story but not revealing the answers. Is Sister Aloysius going after Father Flynn because she genuinely believes he's a pedophile, or because he's challenging her way of running the school? Is Father Flynn honestly taking an interest in the boy, or is he—ahem—taking an interest in the boy?
There are no definitive answers here, and the title says as much about the thoughts of the audience as the thoughts of the characters. Your opinions of each of them shift and change, and it becomes easy to see each point of view, even if the motivation behind them is hard to decipher.
The writing is really the film's best asset—Shanley is a far more interesting scribe than he is a director. And for all the acting pedigrees, the scenes between Streep and Hoffman feel celibate and sterile. In fact, Streep doesn't feel particularly suited to the role, which is strange because, well, she's Meryl Streep—she's generally suited to anything she does. But her affected nun nastiness and heavy accent makes the character feel like an archetype rather than a person. The moments when her humanity really shines through stand out because they're infrequent. Of course, she isn't bad, (this is Meryl Streep, after all), and she'll likely be nominated for yet another Oscar, but we know she's capable of more. Hoffman, on the other hand, is tremendous, charming and funny, an easy target for the doubts of the nuns and the audience alike.
Ultimately, though, Doubt is a terribly sad piece of work. It's tragic that so many of us, me included, are wary of people who are so dedicated to their faiths that they give up everything in service to it. Sure, you have to decide for yourself whether or not Hoffman's Father Flynn transgressed. Me, I think he's guilty, but like everyone else in the film, I have my doubts.