Devil in the details – Doubt review

Doubt – Starring Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams and Viola Davis. Directed by John Patrick Shanley. Rated M for mature themes. 104 mins.

Adapting a John Patrick Shanley screenplay is tricky business. His contract demands not a single word be changed when bringing his script to the screen. So it’s no wonder the only director brave enough to take on the prolific writer’s confronting play Doubt … is Shanley himself. He’s armed himself to the teeth with capable actors, enlisted legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins, and left the music in the hands of the great composer Howard Shore. Impressive for a 90 minute movie built around 4 or 5 heated conversations.

The film takes place in 1964 at a Catholic school in the Bronx. It’s one year after the assassination of JFK and the people of America are recovering from their collective outpouring of grief in this new era. The progressive Father Flynn (Hoffman) wants the school to embrace the winds of change, much to the disdain of the school’s principal Sister Aloysius (Streep). The children of the school are terrified of the stern Sister, whose pet hates include change, ballpoint pens and Frosty the Snowman. Father Flynn however has built a genuine relationship with his students, and has even taken young Donald Miller, the school’s first black student, under his wing.

The sweet natured Sister James (Adams) begins to have suspicions about Flynn’s relationship with Donald. The two seem to share a bond that goes beyond traditional priest/student pleasantries. She brings her doubts to Sister Aloysius, who would be devastated about the possible abuse of one of her student’s if she wasn’t so glad to finally have confirmation about the hidden evil in her nemesis. Of course, there is no solid proof that Father Flynn is involved in any wrongdoing. Or any proof that he isn’t. Did I mention the film was called Doubt?

I love a meaty talkfest, and Doubt makes Frost/Nixon look like the first thirty minutes of WALL-E. It’s masterfully paced by Shanley, whose direction is surprisingly assured for a guy who’s only other film credit is Joe vs. the Volcano. Normally stage-to-film adaptations suffer from overly static set pieces. Not so with Doubt. The picture is filled with haunting visual cues and evocative imagery. Shanley uses the extended scope of the big screen to delve further into this morally ambiguous parable. The film is at its best when it examines its central, titular concept. As Father Flynn states during a sermon, “doubt can be a bond as binding as certainty”. This may be true, but sometimes unfailing certainty can be even more crippling than simply having some doubts.

Despite Shanley’s achievements, Doubt is an acting showcase above all else. Hoffman and Streep clash like two time-tested adversaries. Their uncomfortable verbal sparring matches keep you on the edge of your seat, no matter how far away you want to be from the screen. The seemingly endlessly talented Hoffman brings real humanity and likability to Father Flynn – a difficult thing to admit considering what he is accused of. Even Streep’s monstrous Sister has a tenderly fragile human side. Picking either side feels like you’re betraying someone, somewhere. Adams is also perfect as the innocent young Sister, who has her central belief system shaken to its core. However, Viola Davis leaves an indelible mark on the film in her ten minutes of screen time. As Donald’s mother, she provides a devastating monologue that is completely surprising, and completely understandable. Never assume you’ve got these characters worked out.

Much like the previously mentioned Frost/Nixon, Doubt ends in a flurry of heated exchanges. However, Frost/Nixon’s climax provided revelations and catharsis. Doubt toes the line only to retreat into ambiguity. For that reason (and that reason alone), the film fails to be a completely satisfying experience. I was dying for retribution or some closure between Flynn and Aloysius, but it’s not to be. However, I can acknowledge that the film is better off for leaving the main conflict unresolved. Shanley has said the third act of his two-act play begins when the audience leave the theatre to discuss what they just saw. Those that I’ve spoken to have some pretty strong feelings about the outcome of this film. I’m pretty happy with the conclusion that I’ve put together in my head. But, as with any certainty, I’ve got my doubts.

4.5/5

Check out the trailer.

WARNING! Spoilers in the comments section!

5 Responses to “Devil in the details – Doubt review”

  1. the nun doubted god and her faith, not that flynn was guilty. I don’t see how it is ambiguous at all…she never doubted that he was guilty of abusing the boy, what she doubts is a world why she must endure that flynn goes off in a new parish in a higher position and than evil prevails it is an existential crisis for her questioning god’s reasons which is totally udnerstantable

  2. Alright, so first of all – SPOILER WARNING FOR DOUBT IN THE COMMENTS!Now that’s through with:I agree with your first statement.Sister Aloysius was convinced Flynn had abused Donald, but her cry of ‘I have such doubts’ is more about her faith in the church, and how the whole ordeal has destroyed her belief in the system, as well as her whole system of beliefs.BUT! The film IS ambiguous in whether or not Father Flynn is guilty. For instance, this may be controversial – but I honestly don’t think he sexually abused Donald.Although Sister Aloysius is convinced in his guilt, the film does not outright say one way or the other.I read something that said John Patrick Shanley only ever tells the actor portraying Father Flynn (on stage or on screen) whether or not he is innocent or guilty. None of the other cast members or otherwise know.I could be wrong about my conclusion, as it is just as likely Flynn is guilty – hence the ambiguity of the ending, hence the title ‘Doubt’.

  3. Hi,I was lucky enough to see this wonderful play at the Sydney Opera House a few years ago. I have not yet been to see the movie version and will probably wait for the DVD. Brings up some interesting issues to be debated endlessly and the all important individual decision as to the Father’s innocence or guilt.

  4. After seeing this movie, i was thinking that Father Flynn wasn’t guilty at all. I think Sister Aloysius forced her to leave the parish out of embarrassment. How could he continue working there after such an accusation has been made? There is absolutely so much doubt in this movie. Doubts about faith and religion, but also about who you should put your faith in, and most importantly about right and wrong.You are supposed to doubt what happens in this movie and i think Sister Aloysius should be doubted most of all.

  5. Every normal human being will be against what the priest did to the boy, it’s not because she’s a nun.Why in hell will she doubt god???Nobody Asked why Merill Streep took this role.. Check out the book Codex Magica by Tex Marrs… there is a lot of pictures of Merill performing devil hand signs…It’s a crisis of faith that we are living, men do evil and because of men, a man like the priest got promoted.Look all around you, it’s happening everyday. men who kill a thousand of people get even the noble prize for peace…God bless

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