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Doubt (2008) Print E-mail
Friday, 30 January 2009
Image"I will step outside the church if that's what needs to be done, till the door should shut behind me! I will do what needs to be done, though I'm damned to Hell! You should understand that, or you will mistake me." -Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Meryl Streep)
Doubt, the film based on John Patrick Shanley's Pulitzer Prize winning play, feels more like Oscar-bait than anything else I've seen this year. That's not to say it doesn't have its moments, simply that Shanley, who also wrote the screenplay and directed the adaptation, plays things to the rafters in an attempt to get the Oscar voters' attention.

The movie centers around three people at a Catholic school in the early 1960's. Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep), rules the school with an iron fist. The students all fear her, which is how she likes it. She is fond of a younger nun, Sister James (Amy Adams), an idealistic woman who truly wants the best for her charges. Sister Aloysius is less fond of the new priest, Father Brendan Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Father Flynn wants to modernize the school. He wants to make the authority figures more accessible to the students. Father Flynn takes a young boy, Donald Miller (Joseph Foster), under his wing. Eventually Sister James sees something that makes her think that something untoward had occurred between Father Flynn and Donald. She tells Sister Aloysius, who makes it her personal mission to get Father Flynn removed from the Church, regardless of whether or not he actually did anything. Doubt is a film that likes to nail everything very squarely on the head. Just look at the title. There's a constant doubt as to whether Father Flynn actually did anything wrong (and, for the record, I don't think he actually molested the boy). Regardless, Sister Alosyius trudges on, determined to win out. Most of the film is spent with the three main actors shouting at each other, or speaking in hushed, serious tones. It's a heavy movie that doesn't ever entirely justify its constant speech-making tendencies.

Meryl Streep is the powerhouse of the cast, playing Sister Aloysius as a stern but not unreasonable woman. In fact, the best scenes are those where she steps out of her role as a disciplinarian, or when she's taken by surprise by someone. In those moments, Streep turns the rather one-dimensional character into something more. Without her, the movie probably would have fallen apart. Hoffman is good, but this isn't his best performance in 2008 (that honor goes to his fearless performance in Synecdoche, New York). He has a tendency to either play things flatly, or brimming over with emotion, without much middle ground. Amy Adams gives us her famous brand of wide-eyed innocence that worked so well in Enchanted, but the charm in the approach is already starting to wear off for me. And honestly, if she smiled any wider, I feel like her face would crack in two.

Writer/Director Shanley seems to have trouble moving the picture beyond the realm of the original play. With almost no visual style to speak of, the images are flat and do little to enhance the story. His pacing is languid and does nothing to move the plot. The scenes feel disconnected and, well, stagey. Shanley's, whose last directorial credit was 1990's Joe Vs. The Volcano, shows a lack of understanding of what is necessary to make a great film. He shies away from subtlety like it's an anathema, pushing his actors further and further into overacting territory. Of the three, only Streep gets to pull things back and be more subdued. Perhaps this accounts for Hoffman’s less than stellar performance, especially given that he’s normally an excellent actor.

Doubt isn’t a bad film, but it is quite a forgettable one. The moment I stepped out of the theater, the details of the picture were already leaving my mind. In trying to recall moments for this review, I’m finding myself coming up with precious few. Despite its aspirations to make great statements, the end result is rather turgid. The individual pieces of the movie never unite to make a cohesive whole. And the more I think about it, the more I feel this movie was tailor made for Oscar consideration. It’s got a controversial subject matter, about priests molesting children, it leaves things deliberately vague, and it features loud, over the top performances. Whether or not this was truly Shanley’s intention, the end result certainly feels that way, and it makes the entire project feel disingenuous.

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