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Dustin's Review

Doubt  (2008)
2 Stars
Directed by John Patrick Shanley.
Cast: Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Viola Davis, Joseph Foster II, Lloyd Clay Brown, Alice Drummond, Audrie Neenan, Susan Blommaert, Carrie Preston, John Costelloe, Bridget Megan Clark, Michael Roukis, Frank Dolce, Paulie Litt, Matthew Marvin.
2008 – 104 minutes
Rated: Rated PG-13 (for thematic material).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, December 8, 2008.
Based on the 2004 Tony Award-winning play, "Doubt" takes to the big-screen with this thought-provoking, if somewhat rigid, adaptation. The premise is loaded, filled with enough debate-worthy material to busy up a watercooler or two, but the script sticks so closely to the conflict at hand that it scarcely has room for onscreen spontaneity. Leave it to the top-drawer acting ensemble to show how it's done. The cast rides away with the glory, filling out their roles with a complexity that helps to further the source material's thematic integrity.

Set in 1964—the year after President John F. Kennedy's assassination left the nation in a state of shock and disorientation—it is business as usual as the new year begins at Bronx's private Catholic school St. Nicholas. Except it's not. When newest kid Donald Miller (Joseph Foster II) is called to the rectory by resident priest Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman), only to return to class "acting funny" and smelling of alcohol, soft-spoken history teacher Sister James (Amy Adams) isn't sure how to process the information. She takes it to her superior, principal Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Meryl Streep), who, in turn, sets out to bring Father Flynn down. There is no overwhelming proof that an inappropriate relationship has occurred between himself and Donald, but Sister Beauvier maintains that her own certainty is stronger than any concrete evidence.

John Patrick Shanley originally created "Doubt," so it is a logical choice to have him write and direct this cinematic version. His technical team is superb, from the plain, monochromatic production design of the interiors to the blustery, inclement exteriors, from the sharp cinematography by Roger Deakins (2007's "In the Valley of Elah") to the spare, unsettled orchestral score by Howard Shore (2007's "Eastern Promises"). Shanley additionally invests an atmospheric chill over the visuals, but has he successfully expanded the scope for this new medium? The plot is overly narrow in its gaze, almost never wandering away from the subject at hand, and the arcs of the characters mostly predictable. Meanwhile, the story trajectory is unsurprising—no fault of the movie itself, but the theatrical trailer gives nearly every key moment away—even when it does explore stimulating topics involving intolerance, compassion, and old vs. new rhetoric.

Meryl Streep (2008's "Mamma Mia!") is a powerful force as stodgy Sister Aloysius Beauvier. Though Father Flynn is the one under question, it is Aloysius who is viewed as the antagonist, a virtual witch-hunter. Tiny details of Aloysius' background are all the viewer get—she was once married, for example—but with the knowledge of these things and in the eye-opening way Streep plays her, one gets the sense that she turned to religion out of desperation and a desire for safety rather than true passion. For all of her stubborn outward strength, Aloysius is scared and insecure, a fact that she only reveals at the end but that is written all over her face from the first frame.

As Father Flynn, Philip Seymour Hoffman (2008's "Synecdoche, New York") displays a welcome open-mindedness—his opening sermon on doubt asks tough questions—and a sincerity that puts the viewer, for better or worse, on his side. Amy Adams (2007's "Enchanted") is wonderful as Sister James, a meek and trusting soul who comes into her own the more she butts heads with Sister Beauvier. And as Donald Miller's taxed, straight-talking mother, whom Aloysius confronts about her suspicions, Viola Davis (2008's "Nights in Rodanthe") storms onto the scene for a ten-minute segment that will knock your socks off. Davis is a powerhouse of a character actress—she not only holds her own against Streep, but overshadows her—and her depiction of a weary, battered-down, working-class black woman of the 1960s with few options to offer her son is unforgettable.

Is Father Flynn a pedophile, and did he involve in sexual relations with a student? "Doubt" does not answer this question, and wisely so. A choice he makes near the end could arguably reveal his guilt, but it could also just as easily be read a different, more innocent way. In refusing to point blame, "Doubt" wraps around and forces all of the characters to take a good look at themselves. Some, like the high-strung Aloysius Beauvier, don't like what they see, subsequently left to question their own faith. Overall, "Doubt" is not the dramatic showstopper one might be expecting, but it also isn't without humanity and a pleasing impartiality.
© 2008 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman