Which is why in 2004—in the midst of the Iraq War and as more pedophilia scandals and cover-ups emerged from the Catholic Church, playwright John Patrick Shanley wrote Doubt. Four years later Shanley has directed the film adaptation of his play. (He wrote the screenplay for Moonstuck and wrote and directed Joe Versus the Volcano.)
Doubt is set at a Bronx Catholic co-ed school in 1964, in the midst of Vatican II’s reforms and on the verge of the Great American Hippie Uprising. The principal–stern, terrifying Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep)–holds the line, with certainty, against progressive change, disruptive disorder, and most of all against the sort of social and moral weakness brought on by doubt.
Into her sights comes Father Flynn, (Philip Seymour Hoffman) an open-minded, friendly priest who attracts Sister Aloysius’ ire—not only does he preach a sermon in favor of doubt, but he also likes “pagan” secular Christmas songs like “Frosty the Snowman,” has a sweet tooth (a clear sign of moral softness), and uses—gasp—ballpoint pens. Enlisting as her spy the earnest, innocent new teacher, Sister James (Amy Adams), Aloysius begins to suspect that Father Flynn has “taken an interest” in the school’s first African-American student, a shy boy named Donald (Joseph Foster).
That’s the film’s basic plot, but as is often the case in great plays or films, it’s just a framework on which to hang larger, more complex ideas. Whether or not Father Flynn behaved inappropriately with Donald is the not the primary issue—what is more important to Shanley is how humans behave and form belief systems when they can never really know the truth. Is emotional certainty when lacking proof a necessary human survival technique, a source of strength and fortitude in the face of the unknown? What happens when faith and resolve are used in the absence of facts?
Not only does Father Flynn represent change and openness, a friendly
smile versus the fear hawkish Sister Aloysius commands, but he also
represents the patriarchal hierarchy of the Catholic Church (and, even
today, society in general). When Sister Aloysius launches her
inquisition, we do believe she is acting in the best interests of the
children under her care. But we also see that the accusation is a way of re-consolidating her authority and
power as a strong woman functioning in a male-run system.
All of this gives the viewer plenty to chew on and debate later over
coffee. But as a film, Doubt falls short of it’s grand
intentions. Yes, it’s full of Big Ideas. And yes, it’s an Oscar-begging
acting showcase. But as a film director, Shanley is a very fine
playwright. He prefers an austere stage with Big Actors banging it out,
but on screen, he begins with a quiet winter chill and then slathers
on the middle-school visual metaphors. For every bit that Doubt
steadfastly refuses to offer up pat answers, the film has no problem
shoving the questions at you with the lightning-strike subtlety of,
well, an angry God… or nun.
Streep has been criticized for playing Aloysius as a glaring
caricature, all mannerism and pale malevolence, but to be fair that is
the character, not the actress. Aloysius herself seems to strap on her
Dragon Lady persona as a form of armor and intimidation, keeping both
the students and the faculty in line with the mere threat of stern
disapproval. At this point in her career, Streep could–rightly–be accused of
coasting a bit on her stellar reputation, but in the second half of the
film she handles Aloysius’ more human sides with veteran skill and
Hoffman brings Father Flynn in with a bit more nuance, but he still
gets to contrast Flynn’s ruddy jollity with moments of crashing anger.
Amy Adams has much less to do—Sister James is primarily a narrative
pawn and thematic mid-field marker. Instead, it’s Viola Davis who, as
you may have heard, comes in for a single scene and blows the doors off
the bigger names’ performances.
The weak link here remains Shanley the director, not Shanley the
author. It’s not just that he falls into the familiar traps of
filming a stage play, but he loses sight of the deeper differences
between the art forms. Despite a mighty visual assist from the
brilliant cinematographer Roger Deakins (The Assassination of Jesse
James, No Country for Old Men), Shanley is incapable of letting the
cinematic form work for him. The result is a distancing effect
(sometimes known as “boredom”) that never truly draws the viewer into a
close clinch with Doubt’s characters or ideas.
When you watch a live play, especially a play of ideas with an
ambiguous resolution, the intimacy of the experience makes the theater
goer sit up straighter and wrestle harder with the work and it’s
themes–it’s like being in a classroom under the watchful eye of the teacher. Movie going is much more passive—it’s easier to brush off a
film’s ideas along with the spilled popcorn and emerge into the lobby
thinking only about where to go for dinner.
Sticking to its title, Doubt doesn’t send you home with any real
answers—it’s only overt take-away is that certainty is the enemy, and we
all need to grapple with the questions more robustly. Which is very
fine and good—I’m all for films that make you think, and I’m definitely
down with the notion we each need to better examine our beliefs and
motives. But despite the powerhouse actors giving it their all,
Shanley’s inability to truly use the film medium to enhance and
energize his message will probably leave many film goers cold, perhaps even bored.