Starring: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Meryl Streep, Amy Adams
Directed by: John Patrick Shanley
Written by: John Patrick Shanley
Runtime: 104 mins
Here’s a simple recipe for getting attention from the Academy: take a straight-forward, though Pulitzer prize-winning script and add oodles upon oodles of acting talent. Let stand. What you might end up with is Doubt, a movie that relies almost entirely on the abilities of its actors, in this case Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, and the ever-mighty Meryl Streep. Although on the surface Doubt appears to be a retrospective glimpse of Catholicism in American society during the 1960s, it is also a timeless battle of wits, stamina, and hierarchical powers, pitting Father Brendan Flynn (Hoffman), a sensitive priest who respects the church’s history but wants to ease it into a new, modernizing age, and Sister Aloysius Bueavier (Streep), who demands her own share of power in trying to maintain Catholicism’s strict fundamentals. There are many underlying historical themes brooding here, but Doubt’s real allure are emotional, angry scenes between powerhouses Hoffman and Streep, veritable clashes of the titans not soon to be forgotten.
Doubt is based in the St. Nicholas parish of Bronx, New York, in 1964. It’s a tumultuous time in American history, and the film, ever so subtly, touches upon many of the themes flinging the U.S. into a new age. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech in August 1963 highlights the slow and painful end to segregation. With JFK’s assassination in November, Lyndon Johnson picks up the torch en route to his own, frustrating campaign for racial and social equality, finally condemned by an ambivalent executive position on the supremacy of foreign and domestic policies. Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique catapults women’s rights to the forefront of social issues in 1963, while the “fairer sex” turns to higher education in greater and greater numbers. These issues represent the bed of nails upon which Doubt rests.
[img]http://www.hometheatershack.com/gallery/file.php?n=1657&w=m[/img]For St. Nicholas, change seems inevitable. Father Brendan Flynn, a magnetic young priest more intent on befriending his students than beating them into a disciplined breakdown, represents a significant challenge to the parish school’s firm traditions. Standing resolutely against the tide is its principal, Sister Aloysius Bueavier, a stone-faced, fair-skinned, grim reaper who believes the central greatest tool in educating young people is fear. Fear of their superiors, their parents, and above all, change. And yet, there is something modern about Beauvier, a character whose strength would have contributed significantly to a slowly rising feminist movement. How much the feminist tidal wave inversely inspires Beauvier’s behaviour is unclear, but here is a woman that recognizes weaknesses in an age-old system of male-dominated hierarchy and chooses to exploit it.
Her opportunity arises when St. Nicholas accepts its first African-American student, a timid boy named Donald Miller. Easing Miller into the wider population of St. Nicholas is of paramount importance for Flynn, although his reasons for such a crusade remain unclear. Is he simply trying to make the boy’s adventure in an otherwise all-white school an average and therefore fair one, or does he have more sinister intentions? Recent stereotypes against Catholic priests play a significant role in steering the viewer’s bias down a thick line between the mysterious Flynn and Beauvier, who, for her own reasons entirely, assumes that Flynn’s kind and careful treatment of Miller immediately denotes him as a man of weak morals and entirely unsuitable for his position atop St. Nicholas.
[img]http://www.hometheatershack.com/gallery/file.php?n=1658&w=m[/img]When the timid newcomer, teacher Sister James, smells alcohol on Miller’s breath after he returns from a quiet meeting with Father Flynn, she wastes little time in informing Sister Beauvier. The latter, unimpressed with Flynn’s penchant for ‘modernizing’ St. Nicholas through secular Christmas carols and an uncomfortably untraditional relaxed atmosphere, seeks to reaffirm the school’s strict codes by ruining the young priest, forcing him into a transfer.
It is a simple plot. A dynamic priest appears too close to a young black boy, who himself marks change, and is targeted by a power-hungry female principal who wants to keep her school and her faith from the social holocaust outside its gothic doors. However, Beauvier herself, in demanding control over a centuries-old system of male-dominated hierarchy, is an agent of change. Rarely do films so astutely interpret the conflicting social forces of a period in history, and for this alone Doubt should be commended.
Of course, most viewers will appreciate the film for its acting. Many will identify with the kind-hearted Hoffman, but some will hesitate to do so – after all, the secularization of North American and European culture has been based on recent (and no doubt overblown) fears of depravity. On the other side is a man-eating tiger in Beauvier, and Streep, as we’ve come to expect, makes this character the powerhouse she is. In between is the young Sister James, torn between hopes for a lasting place at St. Nicholas and the protection of a safe, open-minded learning environment as facilitated by Flynn.
[img]http://www.hometheatershack.com/gallery/file.php?n=1659&w=m[/img]Doubt is a good movie, but it is not an exciting one. Its characters are genuine but flawed; there are no heroes here. Some will find the plot, thanks to our veritable lust for news of depravity in the Catholic Church, old and stale. Others might find the environment, a dying Bronx parish immersed in autumn, depressing. It won’t make you cry, dance, or sing.
However, these kinds of acting performances are certainly rare. Few will be surprised that Hoffman and Streep are capable of such highlights, but this may mark a launching pad for Amy Adams, who wonderfully navigates Sister James’ remarkable innocence.
For an intelligent, if painfully human film, try Doubt.