The sinning nun – Doubt DVD 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. Available on DVD.

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. Pretty 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 students 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 the children, 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, although the hamfisted and incessant use of symbolic wind screams Rock Eisteddfod. 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 as the film demonstrates, sometimes unfailing certainty can be the most crippling mindset of all.

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 her fragile human moments. Picking either side feels like you’re betraying someone, somewhere. Adams is also perfect as the innocent young Sister, who has her central beliefs shaken to their 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 leaves 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.


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One Response to “The sinning nun – Doubt DVD review”

  1. I still don't know how i feel about this movie I thought it was very well acted, even though i don't like streep at all, she did an ok job. Hoffman was excellent as always. By the time it got to the end i was pretty much, errr ok, is that it? ummm ok?

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