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by Peter Sobczynski

"Not-So-Good Habits"
3 stars

The good news about “Doubt,” the eagerly awaited film version of John Patrick Shanley’s award-winning play, is that you couldn’t ask for a better team of artists to help it make the transition from stage to screen--Shanley himself did the adaptation and even returned to the director’s chair for the first time since helming the 1990 cult classic “Joe Versus the Volcano,” the production crew includes such top craftsmen as cinematographer Roger Deakins and composer Howard Shore and the small cast includes such powerhouse actors as Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams and Viola Davis. And yet, despite the considerable efforts of all involved, “Doubt” never quite works as a film for the simple reason that it is the kind of narrative that requires the intimacy and immediacy of the live theatrical experience for it to truly succeed. By transplanting it to the big screen, that intimacy and immediacy inevitably disappears and while the story, dialogue and characters may be the same, the experience isn’t because the film never manages to find a way to bridge the gap that has developed between the material and the audience.

Set within the confines of a Bronx Catholic school in 1964 (a time of tumultuous change, don’t you know), “Doubt” examines the battle of wills that develops between two strong-willed members of the faculty and their distinct views on the direction in which the institution should be heading. Representing the forces of progress is Father Brendan Flynn (Hoffman), the school’s charming and engaged priest who recognizes that the world is changing and is convinced that the church needs to do the same if it is to remain helpful and relevant to its parishioners--to that extent, he has already made one radical move by encouraging the school to admit its first black student, Donald Miller (Joseph Foster). On the other hand, Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Streep), the principal of the school, is the traditionalist type who believes in ruling both the students and the teachers in a climate in which change is most decidedly frowned upon (woe unto the child who tries sneaking a transistor radio into class) and harsh discipline is the order of the day. While Father Flynn has begun to win the hearts and minds of many of his parishioners, Sister Aloysius is convinced that not only are his plans dangerous for both the church and its followers, there is something about him personally that is unsettling as well. Outside of the fact that Donald is occasionally bullied by some of his other classmates, there is nothing to overtly suggest that he is doing anything wrong but Sister Aloysius is certain that something is very, very wrong about him.

Her suspicions finally find some footing when the innocent and idealistic Sister James (Amy Adams) offhandedly mentions to Sister Aloysius one day that Father Flynn appears to have taken a special interest in Donald--at one point, he calls Donald out of Sister James’ class and when the boy returns later on, his behavior seems a little odd and there appears to be the smell of communion wine on his breath. Along with Sister James, Sister Aloysius confronts Father Flynn about the incident and he has a perfectly good explanation for everything--he says that a janitor caught Donald drinking the communion wine on his own and he called him out of class to deal with the issue privately so as to avoid embarrassing him. This is enough to satisfy Sister James, who is perfectly willing to assume that people are inherently good, but it does nothing to calm Sister Aloysius’ concerns--in fact, his quick and easy answers to all her questions only serve to make her even more suspicious. Convinced that he has been doing improper things with Donald, despite having no evidence to support her case other than her deep-seated conviction that he is guilty, she redoubles her efforts and even brings in Donald’s mother (Davis) to pass on what she believes has transpired in the hopes of enlisting her in the crusade to remove Father Flynn. Not only does this move not elicit the expected response from Donald’s mother, it forces Sister Aloysius into a final confrontation with Father Flynn in which the fates of their careers and core beliefs hang in the balance.

In essence, “Doubt” is nothing more than a series of charged confrontations between Sister Aloysius and Father Flynn in which the suspense over what is being said is heightened by the script’s deliberate ambiguity and the way that it see-saws between the two points-of-view whenever the story requires it. Even if you never saw it on the stage, you can still understand how it must have worked within the confines of that particular environment because of the way that the tension between the actors during those confrontations must have built during those extended scenes of them going head-to-head without anything separating them from each other or from those in the audience. By transporting the material from the stage to the screen, much of that tension is inevitably defused simply by the demands of filmmaking--by following the conventional cinematic rules of cutting from master shots of the actors to close-ups of each person as they react to what the other is saying and such, the drama is never quite allowed to build and the various cuts and reaction shots also tend to impose a slant on the material that presumably didn’t exist in its stage incarnation.

Shanley also makes the common mistake of trying to “open up” the story in order to free it from its stage roots and make it seem more cinematic. The most egregious example of this comes during the extended sequence between Sister Aloysius and Donald’s mother, most of which now takes place as the two of them are walking down the street--not only does the editing of the scene again subvert the tensions of the scene, the incongruity of the two of them, especially the strict and secretive Sister Aloysius, discussing such a charged topic outside in public is so odd that it winds up serving as a distraction. At the same time, since the arguments are no longer able to build the kind of tension and suspense that had the ability to completely lure audiences in, the script reveals that it isn’t quite as airtight as it may have seemed on stage--the writing at times is just a little too slick for its own good in the various ways that it goads us into agreeing with whichever point-of-view it wants us to follow at any given moment and while it has plenty of big ideas and themes to deliver, it doesn‘t really have anything that interesting to say about them--and that the real secret of the show’s power resided less in the material than in the actors who were delivering it.

And therein lies the other problem with “Doubt”--the fact that both of the two central performances from Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman come across as just a little too affected to really be meaningful. The early scenes in which Streep casually demonstrates the myriad ways in which she rules her purview are amusing enough (presumably more so if you grew up in such an environment) but as the film goes on, it becomes evident that all she has to deliver this time around are tics and mannerisms--we never really get a sense of who Sister Aloysius is and what makes her tick beyond the broadest strokes supplied by the film. This is especially damaging in the film’s final scene, a moment between her and Sister James that should serve as an emotional knockout but which just kind of sits there. As for Hoffman, while he is as good of an actor as anyone working today, he just seems weirdly miscast here--he lacks the slick, easygoing charm that could lead both his congregation into a new world and an altar boy into unspeakable acts and as the film progresses, his performance devolves into the kind of loud scenery-chewing that makes you think that he believes that he is still onstage playing to the rafters. As sweet Sister James, Amy Adams does a much better job of making her role seem like an actual human being but is hampered with a role that forces her to be the conduit for nearly all of the exposition. In the end, it is Viola Davis who winds up making the most impact despite having the least screen time of all the major players--in her one extended scene as the boy’s mother, she makes a devastating impact as a woman who knows far more about what is going on than anyone thinks and whose reaction to it will come as a surprise to many. Despite the klutzy staging of the sequence that I mentioned earlier, Davis makes the scene work in spite of itself and in the moments that she is on-screen, you can begin to understand what “Doubt” must have been like on the stage and what has gone missing in its trip to the big screen.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=17527&reviewer=389
originally posted: 12/12/08 00:42:10
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User Comments

1/27/20 David Hollingsworth A well-acted and moving film. 5 stars
9/13/17 morris campbell gripping thought provoking 4 stars
5/28/13 Ebrahim Kazemipour The mivie casts doubt on our presuppositions of people.I love it very much. 4 stars
8/23/10 RLan great story, even better acting by all invovled. 4 stars
12/22/09 SirGent A new fave & solid from top to bottom, I love Streep! 5 stars
8/24/09 MP Bartley Stagey, but keeps you guessing till, and past, the end. Hoffman and Adams the standouts. 4 stars
6/22/09 Anonymous. I loved this movie. 5 stars
6/17/09 Simon Thoughtful but theatery. Streep still overrated in caricatured character, dreadful ending 3 stars
6/07/09 Danny Very good performances in a rather boring movie. 3 stars
5/23/09 Deck Sophie & Aloysius are the same actress - Streep Rules 4 stars
5/08/09 Charles R.L. Power Not believable, and if it were, its sympathies are in the wrong place. 2 stars
4/17/09 matt meryl streep should have been shot in the face at the end. otherwise a great film! 4 stars
4/16/09 Total Crap The movie is an exercise in brilliant acting. But, that doesn't say much for the plot. 3 stars
2/05/09 Keoni Incredibly believable acting by Streep. I was taught by the Sisters of Charity. Great end. 5 stars
2/04/09 Veritas Ham-fisted, tedious, and utterly false. And Streep's performance is RIDICULOUSLY BAD!!!! 1 stars
1/25/09 mr.mike Only complaint is I couldn't shake the feeling that Hoffman was miscast. 4 stars
1/09/09 meg It was a good ending, he was guilty yet promoted she expresses doubt re God faith justice 4 stars
1/02/09 jcjs33 decent, fine acting, dragged, ok theme, nothing new 4 stars
12/31/08 ravenmad great acting, but wished there was more to it, more drama, more something... 3 stars
12/29/08 orpy Good acting by all; bummer of an ending... 3 stars
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  12-Dec-2008 (PG-13)
  DVD: 07-Apr-2009


  DVD: 07-Apr-2009

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