John Patrick Shanley’s critically acclaimed play Doubt, is superbly adapted to the big screen, with Shanley taking on directorial duties for the first time since 1990’s Joe Versus the Volcano.
The film opens in the Bronx, with cinematographer Roger Deakins – who also photographed The Reader and Revolutionary Road - providing sharp and vibrant imagery, as a young altar boy makes his way to St. Nicholas Catholic church during a brisk autumn morning.
New priest, Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman), delivers a sermon on doubt, which seems to deeply touch his congregation.
As Flynn speaks, the imposing Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep), principle of the adjoining grade school, proceeds to stalk the pews like Black Death itself, correcting those talking and slouching during mass. Nicknamed “The Dragon”, Aloysius is a stern authoritarian of conservative Catholic doctrine, which clashes with Flynn’s more relaxed approach.
Streep plays the role with such a menacing demeanour, that her presence alone will make the viewer quake, with a stare that will burn a hole through the soul of anyone who crosses her. Yet at the same times, Streep trickles in startling moments of vulnerability that only an actor of her experience and talent could pull off.
Rounding out the trio of lead characters is Sister James, who inhibits the kid heartedness and meekness one would expect from a nun, with the choice casting of Enchanted actress Amy Adams adding even more sweetness to her innocent demeanour.
Yet despite her non-confrontational disposition, Sister James will proceed to shake the foundations of St. Nicholas, when she brings faint suspicion to Sister Aloysius, in regards to the relationship between Father Flynn and the school’s lone African American student, Donald Miller (Joseph Foster).
For Aloysius, suspicion is all she needs as clarification of abuse. Cue several thick tension filled scenes between the three leads, with the clashes between Streep and Hoffman, in particular, a dazzling display of acting prowess unleashed on the screen.
Shanley – who attended and was kicked out of a Bronx Catholic school – effectively uses the sexual abuse scandal within the Catholic Church; the church’s sweeping Vatican II reforms; and the assassination of first and lone Catholic President, John F. Kennedy, as a backdrop for his parable about the certainty many place in the powerful tool of doubt.
Also of interest is the politics within the Church, especially the clash between young and old, male and female, as brilliantly shown in comparative dinner table scenes between the quiet and obedient nuns; and the loud, joke cracking priests.
Yet the film’s best scene belongs outside the high walls of Catholicism, as Strep’s Sister Aloysius converses with Viola Davis’s Mrs. Miller, mother of the suspected abused boy, who brings many shattering insights into what can account for the odd behaviour between Donald and Father Flynn.
Here, Davis does the impossible and steals a scene from perhaps the greatest actress of our times. It is a remarkable turn, delivered in a minor amount of time. But also provides another example of Shanley’s exceptional writing, which won his stage play the Pulitzer, and his film a recently well deserved Oscar nomination.