Doubt (Miramax, PG-13)

doubt.jpgWhat goes on in Doubt, as far as one can reasonably tell, is that circa the 1960s a new, likeable priest named Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) comes to a church that is ruled unofficially by its meanest nun, Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep).

 

 

 

 

 

 

Doubt is the type of film that most of the people who see it will be pretty certain that they know what happened in it, though the film intentionally never makes it clear, which is exactly the point of the entire film in the first place. It’s a handy trick.

What goes on in Doubt, as far as one can reasonably tell, is that circa the 1960s a new, likeable priest named Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) comes to a church that is ruled unofficially by its meanest nun, Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep). Soon after his arrival, and after annoying Sister Aloysius with his inherent likeability, there is some evidence that Father Flynn might be having some sort of a sexual relationship with a young boy at the school, and Sister Aloysius sets out to take him down. But is Father Flynn guilty? Even if he isn’t, isn’t Sister Aloysius, despite being abrasive, acting in the children’s best interests in investigating the case?

Doubt is fun to watch, thanks in great part to its wonderful aforementioned cast, plus Enchanted’s Amy Adams as the nun who first sees some evidence of what Father Flynn might be up to and presents her findings to Sister Aloysius, and Viola Davis as the mother of the boy who Father Flynn might have done something or other with. I’m not the fan of Meryl that pretty much everyone else is, but she’s the best here as she has been in years; it’s so much fun to watch her play a villain. And of course Hoffman and Adams are as good as they always are, and Davis is as good as all of her Oscar buzz implies.

Despite all of this, Doubt doesn’t always entirely work. The biggest problem, which is unbelievably glaring, is that writer/director John Patrick Shanley (who adapted the screenplay from his own acclaimed play) ladles on the symbolism with the largest lack of subtlety I’ve maybe ever seen. Light bulbs conveniently going out, talk of cats catching mice, “the winds have changed,” all presented literally and without irony, as if anyone in the world doesn’t see right through what he’s getting at. The absurdly over-the-top and plain-old dumb symbolism almost single-handedly brings down the entire movie.

Oddly enough, what normally kills movies that are adapted from plays is their unavoidable staginess, which is largely circumvented here; Roger Deakins, the guy who shot The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and No Country for Old Men last year, and who is one of the greatest living cinematographers, was brought in to shoot Doubt, and if you’re worried about your film feeling too stagey, well, Deakins is your go-to guy. It isn’t exactly a beautifully shot film, but it doesn’t seem like a filmed play, per se, which is quite a feat in and of itself. | Pete Timmermann

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