2009-02-09 17:02

What it's about:

A young nun accuses a priest of abusing a boy at the school where they work. The head nun, convinced of his guilt, takes it upon herself to expose the truth.

What we thought:

Doubt isn’t the movie I thought it would be. And, interestingly, I only figured that out in the last few minutes of the film. Pitched as a drama about a priest accused of molesting an altar boy, it doesn’t so much answer the questions raised by the story as much as give you a slew of issues to ponder long after the theatre lights have come up.

Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Father Flynn, the head priest of a Catholic school in Boston in 1964. He’s an affable sort of guy, charismatic and sociable, inclined to the odd cigarette and a glass of wine with his dinner. He’s all for bringing about some reform within the Church, to make its clergy more accessible to the congregants. His counterpart in the running of the school, Sister Aloysius Beauvier, favours precisely the opposite. Played by Meryl Streep, she is an unbending iron rod of a woman who believes that good behaviour is brought about through fear; obedience being the sole measurement of herself as school principal.

Their issues come to a head when a young nun, Sister James (Amy Adams), a wide-eyed innocent, spots some irregular behaviour on the part of Father Flynn when it comes to the sole black student in the school. She reports what she has seen to Sister Aloysius, who embarks on a crusade to uncover the truth at any cost to the people involved and the community at large.

Director John Patrick Shanley adapted Doubt from his own stage play, and while he does an admirable job of translating it to a film setting, there are still hangovers from the stage production in the form of extended dialogue scenes. Thankfully, though, these scenes are the film’s most powerful. Father Flynn and Sister Aloysius spar with biting ferocity, and it’s a pleasure to watch Hoffman and Streep put their acting chops to full use – first one has the upper hand, and then the other.

It's gripping stuff, and both are deserving of their Oscar nominations for the roles. Viola Davis is also superb as the mother of the boy in question – it’s a part that Oprah Winfrey desperately wanted, but Shanley refused to even let her audition. A wise move.

Most of the film plays out as a did-he-or-didn’t-he drama. However, as the movie progressed, it becomes apparent the movie is much less concerned with answering those questions as it meditates on the very nature of doubt itself. Of what can you be truly certain? Who is beyond reproach? How far does one go to protect the secrets of a confidante – and at what cost to oneself? And, finally – does the truth always actually matter?

The film allows for the audience to have just a taste of the crippling doubt experienced by its characters, and therein lies its skill  – as the viewer, you first find yourself convinced of Father Flynn’s guilt, then doubt that conviction to the point that you believe the opposite, and then go round in circles again.

It’s not a conventional Hollywood-type film, so don’t go into it expecting a neat plot. To experience some formidable acting and writing, however, it’s hard to top.

A young nun accuses a priest of abusing a boy at the school where they work. The head nun, convinced of his guilt, takes it upon herself to expose the truth.

Morgan 2009/02/13 10:36 PM
'Doubt' comes to the screen with all the strengths of the theatre version intact. Which is why it doesn't work as a film. The plotting is hardly gripping, the language too stagey, and it's got the same director. (Not always a bad thing - Tom Stoppard turned "Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern are Dead" into a fun, brainy, visually-strong flick.) On the plus side, Philip Seymour-Hoffman is spot on with his performance.
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