It took 18 years for John Patrick Shanley to get behind the camera again in the wake of the less-than-spectacular box-office performance of his directorial debut, the very quirky Joe Versus the Volcano. It could be said that he played it a little on the safe side by adapting his own award-winning play, Doubt, for the occasion. But has he really? True, the material works as theater, but that doesn’t guarantee acceptance as a movie. In fact it’s sometimes quite the opposite, and I’ve already noticed a tendency for the film to find less-than-ready acceptance among those familiar with the play. After all, Shanley has “opened up” the play. He’s moved it from its two-set confines, gone far beyond the play’s original four characters, invented new scenes and attacked the material with a strong sense of cinema. The results are bound to displease some purists. The rest of us might feel a bit differently.
I’d never seen or read the play and knew little about it other than its basic premise concerning a nun/principal of a Catholic school becoming suspicious of and engaging in a confrontation with the parish priest over what she believes to be inappropriate conduct with at least one of her pupils. Actually, armed with just that knowledge, I groaned when I was first confronted with the film. I envisioned something fairly simplistic and high-minded, with a lot of breast-beating from Meryl Streep (trying perhaps to regain dramatic credibility after writhing on the roof of a goat house in Mamma Mia!). While I did find a certain amount of the latter, I was surprised to find a rich, multilayered story that’s about a lot more than the bare plot—a plot that itself has one out-of-left-field thought-provoking wrinkle.
Within the boundaries of the film’s plot, Shanley addresses the changes the Catholic Church was going through with Vatican II and the attempts of Pope John XXIII to modernize the outlook of the church. Set in 1964, the story takes place during these changes—with Father Brendan Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) on the side of change and Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Meryl Streep) representing the old order of things. The film often contrasts the worldly pleasures enjoyed by the priests in their off-duty lives with the spartan existence of the nuns in Sr. Aloysius’ charge. In the middle of this tug-of-war is a young nun, Sister James (Amy Adams), whose sense of loyalty to her superior isn’t entirely compatible with her own sense of right and wrong.
Beyond this, the post-Kennedy assassination era is central to the civil rights movement and to changes making inroads in society in general. To underscore the civil rights angle, the boy at the center of the confrontation between Fr. Flynn and Sr. Aloysius is Donald (newcomer Joseph Foster II), the school’s first black student—making the presumed situation that much more potentially volatile. Since the story works as something of a mystery and is so grounded in a series of revelations that occur throughout the film, it would do Doubt a grave disservice to go into detail on any of the specifics of what happens. I can safely say, however, that much of what happens doesn’t play out in the way one might expect. Sr. Aloysius’ encounter with Donald’s mother (Viola Davis in a wholly remarkable performance) so plays against expectations and our own beliefs that it’s like a body blow—not in the least because it’s ultimately so painfully understandable.
Shanley has shrewdly crafted the film to instill doubt in Fr. Flynn’s actions from the very start—and he does so by showing the priest’s actions as they appear to Sr. Aloysius. Her suspicions become ours, even before she transfers those suspicions to Donald’s teacher, Sr. James, who begins to see events colored by the seeds of doubt. The pattern continues, but it’s one that is insidious in its ability to cast as much doubt on the suspicions as it does confirm them. This is what gives the film its complexity and strength. Some of it is, of course, inherent in the stage original, but it’s broadened in the creation of other characters and scenes.
It’s noteworthy that Shanley’s approach is wonderfully cinematic in an almost fearless manner. He uses a variety of devices throughout the film—some of which could have easily become risible, but all of which work. The skewed angles and such obviously choreographed moments as when the nuns leave their cells in the morning are one thing. Summoning up a wind storm for dramatic effect at a psychological moment is something else again in its boldness—almost as if Shanley is daring you to laugh and at the same time trusting you won’t.
Yes, the movie is a field day for the actors—and Shanley makes it even more so (notice the introduction of Sr. Aloysius) by his judicious use of the camera and his staging of it all. Streep manages to make her frequently rather monstrous character understandable, even sympathetic. There are moments of humor in her portrayal of the nun and a sense of humanity, all of which is underscored by her fear of change and her doubts about the certainty of her own convictions. Hoffman walks a fine line between being the wronged man and the potentially guilty one. Amy Adams is perhaps a little too old for her role, but she carries such an innate air of innocence that it’s hard to imagine anyone playing it better. However, the biggest accolades ought to go to Viola Davis, who pulls off what could have been an impossible role in a performance that is simply breathtaking.
Without question, this is pretty heavy stuff all the way around. It isn’t a “feel-good” movie in any sense of the term, but it is surprisingly entertaining—as well as being powerful. It preserves a sense of the theatricality of the piece—complete with the heightened emotions this suggests—but never becomes canned theater in the bargain. One viewing sold me on its basic quality. A second look convinced me that Doubt is at least verging on something like greatness. Rated PG-13 for thematic material.