Wednesday, January 7, 2009
Although I'm an atheist, and was not Catholic before I rejected religion, I find the rigidity and ritual of Catholicism fascinating. I have no idea if Doubt gets the details right, but it works terrifically on screen. Doubt was originally a play written by John Patrick Shanley in 2004, which went on to win 4 Tony awards (with 4 other nominations) and a Pulitzer Prize for Drama. It deals with the uncertainty surrounding a priests association with a young boy at a Catholic school in 1964 New York City. The school's principle, Sister Aloysius, becomes convinced that Father Flynn has had an inappropriate relationship with the young boy, while Father Flynn maintains that his contact is strictly paternal, looking out for a lonely kid that needs a friend and a mentor. Caught in the middle of their struggle is Sister James, an innocent young nun teaching history at the school, whom Sister Aloysius had begun to take under her wing.
One of the most fascinating pieces of the writing is the subtle power struggle between Father Flynn and Sister Aloysius. As principle, Sister Aloysius is in charge of the school, its students, and its teachers. But as the priest of the church, Father Flynn outranks Sister Aloysius in all matters. A delightful subtlety we see is how both fight over who is sitting in the Principle's chair during meetings. Father Flynn seems to be a fun loving, friendly, and compassionate priest whom most of the kids like, while Sister Aloysius runs the school through fear, like she is the warden of this Catholic prison. Still, Sister Aloysius is not a one-sided caricature, she genuinely cares for the students and her fellow nuns, but something rubs her the wrong way about Father Flynn. Sister James is stuck in between the two, using the very effective advice that Sister Aloysius gives her about dealing with students, while also sharing Father Flynn's desire to bring the church into the new generation of America post Kennedy assassination. Father Flynn believes that Sister Aloysius is accusing him of these things (despite only circumstantial evidence) because of her dislike of his belief in change. She insists that "nothing has changed under the sun" when Father Flynn suggests that maybe they should include a secular song like "Frosty the Snowman" into the Christmas pageant because people have changed and want a friendlier, more relatable church.
The movie is impeccably cast, with two of the greatest actors the movies have ever known filling the two lead roles. Meryl Streep fits perfectly into the hawkish role of Sister Aloysius, nicely adopting a New York accent for the role. Philip Seymour Hoffman proves yet again that he is an endlessly versatile performer, putting his peers to shame as he shows once more why I think he is (and has been for years) the best actor working in movies. Also pitch perfect are the supporting performances, with Viola Davis heartbreaking as the mother of the young boy in question, and Amy Adams as the perhaps overly naive Sister James. Adams, showing that her Oscar-nominated turn in Junebug wasn't a fluke, takes what could've been a bland part that gets blown away by the juicier leading roles and imbues it with a genuine and intelligent goodheartedness. You can see in Adams' eyes and hear in her voice the different shades of understanding and thought that she gives to Sister James. Both Father Flynn and Sister Aloysius sound right, but both cannot be right. Thankfully, there is no black-and-white writing among the characters. Like Sister James, we're not sure who to believe and we're never given a straight answer.
John Patrick Shanley is one hell of a writer. In addition to the accolades he won for this work, he previously won an Oscar for the screenplay of the 1987 hit Moonstruck. He then went on to write and direct one of the most sadly overlooked movies of the next decade in the bizzare Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan comedy Joe Versus the Volcano. For Doubt, he adapted his own play, and directs for the first time since the flop of Joe in 1990. His script is crackling with great exchanges between the characters, and it never rang false to me. It doesn't play like a Tarantino movie, where the dialog is wonderful but unrealistic, the dialog in Doubt works so well because it is so realistic. Even if Sister Aloysius is the stereotypical strict nun, she still always feels like a real person, which I think is the accomplishment of the script and also a credit to Streep's performance. There is electricity in the confrontational scenes and in the dialog because of what it means to these characters and their lives. Thankfully, Shanley never makes this feel like a filmed play, bringing enough cinematic vision to make it feel like a story that just happens to have a minimal number of characters in it.
Hoffman, Streep, Adams, and Davis are well worth the price of admission, and with the classy way that Shanley handles a tricky subject matter, there's not really anything to be put off by about the story. Doubt will certainly be on my final list of the best movies of 2008.