Friday, December 12, 2008
It is 1964, the Bronx. The nation is still reeling from the assassination of a beloved president who represented vitality, courage and change. At St. Nicholas, a young charismatic priest, Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) strives to make the Church more approachable to its schoolkids and parishioners. Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep), trained a generation earlier under more rigid guidelines, is convinced that his methods promote a permissiveness that will ultimately undermine the Church. And caught in the middle is Sister James (Amy Adams), who must reconcile her own beliefs - much closer to the Father's - with that of her superior's. Sister James sees Father Flynn as a welcome ray of light in the doom-and-gloom atmosphere perpetuated by the strict Sister Aloysius. Flynn agrees, pointing out to the young nun, "The dragon is hungry," when Aloysius yells for a student to come see her. But after a black student, Donald Miller returns uncomfortably from a meeting with the priest, Sister James starts suspecting Father Flynn of something unspeakable. Sister Aloysius is only too eager to confront the priest regarding the matter, stopping just short of an outright accusation of moral impropriety. And she is only too happy to push the matter to its limits in order to get Flynn out of "her" school. John Patrick Shanley's Doubt is based on his own Pulitzer Prize-winning play. Ostensibly the story is about the question of whether or not Father Flynn committed the crime he is accused of by Sister Aloysius, pursuing her line of questioning without any evidence save for her moral certainty. However, it is easy to see the metaphor for some of the personal sacrifices we've made in the pursuit of the faceless fear that currently grips our nation. Are we right to attack someone or some thing without any hard evidence of their involvement in criminal activities? What happens to us when the possibility that we were wrong in our assumptions grows until it cannot be ignored? Can we hide behind morality when prejudice is the impetus for our actions? Shanley's film asks all of these questions, and doesn't always answer them successfully. Shanley is astute enough to complicate this thin allegory by casting doubts on each side of the question. Yes, Father Flynn offers hope instead of fear. But can we judge a more insidious purpose in his lecture to the schoolboys about keeping their fingernails clean? And why does he indulge in moments of gluttony and vice, such as smoking, or the extra lumps of sugar in his tea? Sister Aloysius is not exactly the paragon of virtue herself, enjoying the occasional news reports on a transistor radio she confiscated from a student who was listening to it in class. But she is honest enough to acknowledge her momentary weakness. And she hides a streak of kindness, evident in the way she protects an older nun who is going blind from being discovered so she won't get released from her duties. The cast unanimously give excellent performances. Hoffman plays Flynn with the right amounts of big brother, chummy pal, and understanding confidant, recasting the popular representative stereotype of the Church - the mean, old, Catholic nun as depicted by Sister Aloysius - with the fresher notion of the hip priest you wish you had grown up listening to at Mass. As the naive Sister James, Adams convincingly plays the role of student, an empty vessel seeking knowledge and experience, yet unable to decide if her mentor should be Aloysius or Flynn. Viola Davis is significantly memorable as Mrs. Miller, the student's mother. In just two scenes, she is able to hold her own, emotionally sparring with the legendary Streep, as she wonders whether the pursuit of the truth about Father Flynn is worth all the turmoil this would ultimately bring her son. But amid stellar performances Streep's is a cut above the rest. Streep is always the character you are with as the story unfolds. And she steals every scene she is in, even when in the company of the other illustrious actors. She can be disarmingly funny, such as when Sister James argues on Father Flynn's behalf, and a bulb in the room blows out. Sister Aloysius declares to the innocent young nun, "Look at that. You blew out my light." But she can also be devastating, using God as an inadvertent co-conspirator, witheringly declaring the same statement to Father Flynn when the bulb blows out again, as he defends himself. Surprisingly, it is her interpretation of the character which also undermines the central point of Doubt. She makes Sister Aloysius so convincing in her argument, that it is hard to believe she might have it all wrong. Streep's multilayered performance is probably the best I've seen all year. In the end, Shanley's themes seem to fade into the gray areas he is working to conjure up. But its relevance to current events, and the performances, led by Streep's, are powerful enough to warrant viewing Doubt immediately. Doubt is in limited release. Still provided courtesy of Miramax Films.