, 104 min, 2008
Director: John Patrick Shanley
Writer: John Patrick Shanley (screenplay), John Patrick Shanley (play)
Stars: Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams
John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt is a fascinating, challenging, complex morality play which examines through a glass darkly the various applications of the word “doubt” and applies them to a parable set in a hermetically sealed time and place.
In 1964 in the Bronx, the St. Nicholas Catholic school is undergoing a regime change thanks to the progressive and popular new parish priest, Father Brendan Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman, in yet another of 2008′s best performances). He is already at odds with the school’s principal, the draconian and close-minded Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep), who wants no part of his modern world.
One day, the school’s only black student Donald Miller (Joseph Foster II) is summoned by Father Flynn to the rectory, and upon returning to class the smell of alcohol is on his breath. Bright, naive, fresh-faced young Sister James (Amy Adams of Junebug and Enchanted) reports this dutifully to her superior nun, and then has doubts she’s done the right thing. Soon, all Hell breaks loose. A small-scale witch hunt begins to take shape, orchestrated by Sister Aloysius and designed to get Father Flynn out of the school by any means necessary. But did the boy drink the altar wine of his own volition and get caught, as the Father suggests, or was he given it? Even the hint of any impropriety by a trusted and beloved priest to the school’s only black student is unfathomable. But has he done something wrong, or is he merely guilty of showing a minority within a minority kindness and support?
Another character briefly enters, in her only major scene. That would be the boy’s mother, Mrs. Miller (Viola Davis), a hard-working woman who comes in from the real world and upsets Sister Aloysius’ expectations with an agenda of her own: her son is a good boy and only needs to make it through till June; if he could just graduate without a scandal, he’d have a better chance at a good high school and perhaps even college.
John Patrick Shanley (the writer of Norman Jewison’s Moonstruck, among others) hasn’t directed a film since his debut with Joe Versus the Volcano (1990). Here, adapting his own Tony-winning stage play, Shanley shows a sure hand as he considers the perspective and potential ramifications from all sides of a very difficult situation. The warm, crisp cinematography by the great Roger Deakins (a veteran of many Coen Brothers films and Tim Robbins’ Dead Man Walking, among others) lends the film a curious atmosphere given the cold subject matter. There is somewhat heavy-handed symbolism as well with the weather becoming more and more vicious as the story unfolds (“The weather’s changing,” says Aloysius to a groundskeeper).
The performances are uniformly excellent, with Davis being a shoe-in for a Best Supporting Actress nomination in a scene that only lasts about 10 minutes. The film’s title is no accident: it’s about doubt in the form of whether or not a person is doing the right thing; it’s about having no doubt in terms of whether or not you are wrong about someone or something, regardless of whether you have any evidence; and finally I believe it’s about doubting a system or belief that may protect the wicked and sweep the innocent and victimized under the rug.
Ultimately, this is a film that asks tough questions, considers every possibility, and even when you think you know what really happened, you leave the theater in doubt – not, however, about this film’s greatness. This is one of the year’s best films.
Footnote: The film was nominated for 5 Oscars, including Adapted Screenplay, Actor, Actress and Supporting Actress (x2!).