In adapting his own play Doubt to the cinema, director/screenwriter John Patrick Shanley has crafted a minor masterpiece, a film that stimulates both the viewers' emotions and intellect. With the help of superlative performances, Shanley vividly and enthrallingly dramatizes the controversy concerning whether or not a charismatic and beloved priest has violated his ecclesiastical vows at a parochial school. Doubt has been playing at theatres for over a month, including Clearview's Beacon Hill Cinema 5 in Summit, New Jersey. I'm certain that even people who saw it when it was first released are still contemplating the film's moral issues.
Doubt takes place in the Bronx in 1964, a time when the Roman Catholic Church was undergoing sessions of the Second Vatican Council to modernize its social outlook. Father Brendan Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is determined to bring the Council's progressive ideas to St. Nicholas, the parochial school at which he works. But the school's principal, Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Meryl Streep), insists on maintaining the school's strict customs.
So adamant is her resistance to change that she disapproves of the students using ballpoint pens instead of fountain pens. As the film progresses, the conflict intensifies between Father Flynn and Sister Beauvier.
The priest spends a lot of the time with the school's first black student, Donald Muller (Joseph Foster II). A young, naive teacher, Sister James (Amy Adams), worries that Father Flynn's interest in the boy is too personal to be healthy and she reveals her concern to Sister Beauvier. Convinced of the priest's guilt, the principal sets out on a crusade to find evidence against him and to have him dismissed from the school.
I have never seen the original theatrical production, but judging from the film, John Patrick Shanley isn't entirely successful in concealing his play's stage origins. Although he provides beautiful exterior shots, much of the scenario is confined indoors in a classroom, office, and church.
Nevertheless, Shanley doesn't entirely depend on dialogue to enhance the drama. For instance, compare his visual depiction of the nuns' behavior at dinner when they are with the uptight Sister Beauvier with the priests' behavior in the presence of the liberal-minded Father Flynn. The nuns are solemn and silent but the priests laugh and enjoy themselves with good food and music.
Shanley also employs dazzling cinematic techniques such as when he summons up a windstorm during an intense psychological moment. He maintains the viewers' interest even during Doubt's more verbose moments because he adroitly paces his scenario without any lulls.
As Sister Aloysius, Meryl Streep once again lives up to her reputation as one of America's greatest living thespians. Her eyes glaring fiercely behind spectacles, her lips pursed in a forbidding scowl, she epitomizes harsh, uncompromising traditionalism. To the credit of both Shanley's script and Streep's acting, Sister Aloysius is no one-dimensional villain. She reveals some genuine tenderness as when she demonstrates concern for the elder nuns.
In an agonizing meeting with Donald Muller's mother (a genuinely heartbreaking performance by Viola Davis), Sister Aloysius is clearly devastated as the mother tearfully confides her son's problems. These moments of vulnerability make the viewers speculate about Sister Aloysius's motives in trying to have Father Flynn ousted: does she consider him a threat to her authority or does she sincerely believe she's doing the right thing for the school?
Philip Seymour Hoffman is equally outstanding as Father Flynn. Persuasively delivering his sermons and demonstrating charismatic bonhomie with his fellow priests and his students, one can easily understand Flynn's enormous popularity at the school. But Hoffman's performance also suggests his priest is a flawed individual. For instance, he betrays arrogance and possibly sexism when, meeting with Sister Aloysius in her office, he takes her chair without asking permission. In another scene, he threatens to have her removed.
When Sister Aloysius accuses Flynn of taking advantage of Donald, he is slow in responding to this charge. When he does eventually react, Flynn rages at her. Is the priest hiding something or is he at a loss over how to handle such a threat to his livelihood and reputation?
The power of Doubt is that it doesn't manipulate the viewers but lets them make their own decisions. John Patrick Shanley fully realizes that unlike in most mainstream films, life's situations are never simple or clear cut.
Father Flynn's words at the film's beginning explain Doubt's significance and appeal: "Doubt can be a bond as powerful and sustaining as certainty. When you are lost, you are not alone."
It is rated PG-13 for mature thematic material.