Review by Michael Jacobson
Stars: Meryl Streep,
Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Viola Davis
Director: John Patrick Shanley
Audio: DTS HD 5.1, Dolby Digital 2.0
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Features: See Review
Length: 103 Minutes
Release Date: April 7, 2009
“Where’s your compassion?”
“Nowhere YOU can get at it.”
Doubt is a parable, according to the subtitle of John Patrick Shanley’s Pulitzer Prize winning play. He took it upon himself to adapt his stage hit for the screen and direct it himself, and the powerful quartet of actors in his cast, all Oscar nominees, made it hard for him to misstep.
In fact, it’s the sheer pleasure of seeing these four actors at the top of their craft that makes the movie worthwhile. As a drama, it doesn’t always connect. There is a lot of discussion and very few answers, which left me wondering exactly what the point of it all really was.
Maybe it’s stated up front in Father Flynn’s (Hoffman) sermon…doubt can be as powerful a force as faith in our lives. I can’t think of any real priest who would offer such advice to his parish, but the year is 1964, and Father Flynn represents the future of the Catholic Church; it is still pre-Vatican II, but he seems warm to the changes that are about to come.
Less enthusiastic is the church’s school principal, Sister Aloysius (Streep). She is cold and efficient, and the kids are more than a little afraid of her because of her stern attention to detail and discipline. She does not embrace change; in fact, under her, students aren’t even allowed to use ballpoint pens.
In between is the bright and innocent Sister James (Adams), a teacher with a great deal of heart and faith, but maybe not enough smarts in terms of how the world and the Church really work. She respects her superiors, but ends up caught in between them when suspicion of a terrible deed arises.
The issue: the school’s lone black student is called from Sister James’ class by Father Flynn for a private meeting in the rectory. When he returns, he seems upset, and the Sister believes she smells alcohol on his breath. What happened?
In the mind of Sister Aloysius, only one explanation: Father Flynn engaged the boy in inappropriate behavior. And if Father Flynn extols the virtues of doubt up front, his message is lost on Sister Aloysius, who is unflappable in her conviction, even though there is no direct evidence that the Father engaged in an unspeakable act.
When the boy’s mother (Davis) is brought in to meet with Sister Aloysius, her reaction to what the nun has to tell her is unexpected. Her only concern is keeping her son in good standing in the school for his final year, so he can get into a better high school and hopefully college, ensuring a future not readily available to most boys in his situation and time.
So, what exactly happened in the rectory? There is Father Flynn’s story, and there is Sister Aloysius’ unbending belief, and you can’t help but wonder if she is motivated more by the truth or by her obvious disdain for the more modern priest. Neither is willing to bend, but the situation will demand a resolution one way or the other.
If you think you’re watching a mystery, you might be disappointed. Questions are never answered. Shanley’s screenplay focuses entirely on the truth of the characters and not the situation. The lack of resolution was a little disappointing to me, as were the stretches of scenes that seemed to wander a little bit. The rectory incident is merely a catalyst, not so much a story thread. The movie doesn’t seem to be making a statement about the Church or the controversies that have plagued her; it’s more about how one can be certain to the exclusion of anything else and what consequences that can bring.
There was not a better acted film of the year; of that I am absolutely sure. Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman pair up in scenes that are absolutely riveting, but Ms. Streep also manages to spar perfectly with Amy Adams and Viola Davis. If the definition of a great movie is three great scenes and no bad ones, one can certainly admit that Shanley got at least the first part of the formula right.
This movie was filmed by legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins, who opted for an all-natural light approach to the film, which gives it an overall cool and natural looking appearance. Some of the lower light settings exhibit some grain, but that’s hard to avoid when higher contrast film stock is necessary. Images on this Blu-ray are crisp and detailed, particularly in the colder outdoor New York settings.
The film is driven by dialogue with only small cues of music here and there, so not a lot of dynamic range, but the DTS HD offers an ambient and completely natural audio experience that is well mixed and clean.
John Patrick Shanley is all over this Blu-ray, starting with a solid commentary track, and continuing in the feature “From Stage to Screen”, where he discusses adapting his own play for the movie. There are also featurettes on the cast, the score, and the real Sisters of Charity, along with some bonus previews.
Doubt merits a recommendation solely on the strength of its impressive cast, though some of the story progressions are a bit unsatisfying. It’s an intriguing idea to use the concept of faith versus doubt in an area outside the normal religious parameters, but it seemed like the real opportunities for drama remained hidden away.