by Mel Valentin
Most filmgoers know John Patrick Shanley (if, presumably, they're familiar with his name at all) as the screenwriter of "Moonstruck," the 1987 Academy Award winner for Best Original Screenplay. While Shanley has written additional screenplays and directed "Joe Versus the Volcano," he's best known to playgoers as the 2005 Tony- and Pulitzer- Prize winning playwright of "Doubt," a richly themed period drama. The Tony, the Drama Desk, and the Pulitzer awards gave Shanley the opportunity (which he took) to adapt and direct "Doubt" for the big screen. Those awards and the recognition he's received also allowed Shanley to tap Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Amy Adams for the three lead roles and, unsurprisingly, obtain powerhouse performances from all three actors.Doubt is set in 1964, at St. Nicholas Church School in the Bronx, New York. Father Brendan Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a popular, self-professed progressive Catholic priest, befriends a twelve-year old boy, Donald Muller (Joseph Foster II), the first (and only) African-American at St. Nicholas. Friendless and unpopular, Muller reciprocates Father Flynn's seemingly benign, benevolent interest, but Muller's history teacher, Sister James (Amy Adams), a young, inexperienced nun, begins to suspect something wrong in Father Flynn's interest in Muller after Father Flynn calls Muller into his private office in the middle of the day and Muller returns smelling of wine. She also spots Father Flynn returning Muller's undershirt to his locker.
"See it for not one, not two, not three, but four stellar performances."
Not surprisingly, Sister James' brings her concerns to Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Meryl Streep), her superior and the St. Nicholas' principal. Cold, demanding, and authoritarian, Sister Aloysius immediately suspects Father Flynn of wrongdoing in his relationship with Muller. Sister James' halting suspicions, however, are insufficient to force Father Flynn to resign from St. Nicholas. Bringing her own suspicions (which he elevates to certainties) to Father Flynn's superiors, the monsignor and bishop won't work either. Sister Aloysius may have power within St. Nicholas to shape the curriculum and enforce discipline, but her power ends at the door of the elementary school: the Roman Catholic Church, hierarchical and authoritarian, gives little power to women, regardless of their position within the Church.
Translating dramatic plays into cinematic form has always been a difficult proposition and Doubt is no different. Primarily a three-character play, heavy on dialogue and performance, there's little visually a director can do to "open up" the play to make it more cinematic. Early on, the focus on the elementary school allows Shanley to vary the shots and show something of the world inside and outside St. Nicholas, but once Sister James brings her doubts about Father Flynn to Sister Aloysius, Doubt reverts to its origins as a dramatic play. Shanley tries, often unsuccessfully, to change the tempo and rhythm of individual scenes through different camera angles, but the result feels forced and contrived (because it is).
Dramatically, however, it's easy to see why Doubt won the Tony, Drama Desk and Pulitzer Prize awards: the search for religious, ethical, and moral certainty that drives Doubt reflects the issues Catholics (and, for that matter, anyone who considers themselves spiritually oriented) confront in their everyday lives. The conflict between religious observance, of religious belief that encompasses belief in a Catholic Church, and a worldly hierarchy that often betrays those beliefs (or has, at least, recently) to protect its own also gives Doubt an underlying urgency and momentum that helps to overcome Shanley's shortcomings as a director. None of those ideas or themes would mean anything, of course, without the performances to "sell" them.If the success of "Doubt" was based solely on the cast, then "Doubt" would be a shoe-in at awards time. In a career spanning four decades, Meryl Streep has yet to give an unconvincing, unpersuasive performance and "Doubt" does nothing to break that streak. She imbues Sister Aloysius with an unbending self-righteousness that, in other hands, would seem monstrous, but here appears like the pinnacle of selfishness. Amy Adams captures Sister James' uncertainties and, at times, desperate need for approval and recognition convincingly. Philip Seymour Hoffman is never less than sympathetic or watchable as the flawed, if no less charismatic, Father Flynn, even when he's openly confronted with Sister Aloysius' ugly accusations about his relationship with Muller. The same can be said for Viola Davis as Muller's mom. While Davis appears in just one scene, she gives an indelible, memorable performance as a deeply compassionate, understanding mother.
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originally posted: 12/12/08 03:28:54