Movie Information

The Story: The head nun at a Catholic school in 1964 harbors suspicions -- that become confirmed in her own mind -- about the relationship of the priest and one of her students. The Lowdown: A wholly intelligent, entertaining and thought-provoking film showcasing a powerhouse of acting talent at their best.
Genre: Drama
Director: John Patrick Shanley (Joe Versus the Volcano)
Starring: Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Viola Davis, Joseph Foster II
Rated: PG-13

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.

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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8 thoughts on “Doubt

  1. Jason Williams

    North Carolina Stage Company in Asheville just staged a fantastic version of this play. In my opinion no other medium can capture the intensity of a well produced stage version performed right in front of you. So while it’s great that this Pulitzer Prize winning play is getting out to a larger audience, and I’m sure the performances and flmmaking is top-notch, I think I’d rather go to the cinema to see something specifically crafted for that medium, like “Let the Right One In”, “The Wrestler” or “Slumdog Millionaire” and catch this one on video.

  2. Ken Hanke

    In my opinion no other medium can capture the intensity of a well produced stage version performed right in front of you.

    I learned long ago not to argue with folks who have a solid preference for theatre over film. (And it’s fine because I have a solid preference for film over theatre and am just as unshakable, so it evens out.)

    I think I’d rather go to the cinema to see something specifically crafted for that medium, like “Let the Right One In”, “The Wrestler” or “Slumdog Millionaire” and catch this one on video.

    If you’re harcore sold on the play, I’d suggest you stay away from the film altogether, but I so think that you should consider that the film version of this indeed is specifically crafted for film by the playwright. As such it’s a special case (though not a unique one). I would rank it under Slumdog as filmmaking and possibly under Let the Right One In, but, in all honesty, I think it’s better than The Wrestler in every department.

  3. Jason Williams

    I guess I’m just weary of screen adaptations of good plays, because for every Doubt, or Closer you have a Proof, or Bug, or (gasp) Rent. Moreover once you have a definitive film version of a play it becomes harder to separate the film and the stage production. People want to see play performed the same way as the movie, and are sometimes disappointed when that doesn’t happen. Also sometimes it seems like film adaptations of plays are sometimes just a vehicle for that big name actors appear in to boost their credentials. Both of the featured actors in the the Broadway version were award winning actors, so they should be perfectly capable of playing the roles on film, but no one would go see them. They might go see Hoffman or Streep however. It’s all probably a bit of elitism on my part. I guess I’m just kind of a theater segregationist.

  4. halcb

    Saw this last week and was blown away by the acting and the script. [Can’t really comment on how it compares to the stage version; but clearly it is a work of art in both arenas.] Maybe not a great film, but certainly a very good one, with Oscar-worthy performances by the three leads (I think that Adams deserves equal billing with Hoffman and Streep). And what amounts to almost a cameo by Viola Davis may be the single most powerful scene in the film. Even the occasional tilted camera that Ken mentions in his review (another great review from Ken, BTW)didn’t really distract, and was effective IMO in helping create a sense of unease and impending drama. I think this movie should be required viewing for anyone who considers themselves ‘religious’, or who has never stopped to ponder the value of uncertainty and doubt.

  5. Ken Hanke

    And what amounts to almost a cameo by Viola Davis may be the single most powerful scene in the film.

    For me, it is the most powerful scene in the movie — in part because it contains a surprising twist to the whole story, the one that raises a truly provocative question of a kind that the movies usually shy away from. The strength of Davis’ performance and the natural (yet wounded) dignity is, of course, a large part of what puts it over.

  6. Charlie Flynn-McIver

    “a truly provocative question of a kind that the movies usually shy away from”

    That’s your reason, right there, for seeing a play. In fact, it totally sums up the reasons my wife and I started NC Stage, (who produced the play Doubt in October/November 2008). Great plays, and welldone productions of them, raise truly provocotive questions of a kind that the movies usually shy away from.

    So 2 things Mr. Henke: 1. I hope you’ll come see what we’ve got coming up. Three plays that defy description because of the richness of the material and 2. do you mind if I steal this phrase for our marketing?

    Thanks for the shout out Jason!

  7. Ken Hanke

    do you mind if I steal this phrase for our marketing?

    Not in the least. Be my guest. As for the first question — if you’ll keep me apprised of what and when, I may just do that.

  8. Charlie Flynn-McIver

    Great! I’ll get you some info. Thanks for helping to keep the filmmakers and all artists honest!

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