Monday, March 9, 2009

Doubt (2008)

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The Jist
Doubt is set in the 1960s, and centers around a nun (Meryl Streep) who suspects a priest (Philip Seymour Hoffman) of having a questionable relationship with a young male student at the Catholic school she oversees. A younger nun, played by Amy Adams, tries to maintain good will at the school while regarding the integrity of all parties involved in the questionable affairs.

What's Good
John Patrick Shanley has already received a Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award for the theatrical version of Doubt, and who better to enlist to ensure a strong big-screen adaptation than Streep and Hoffman in the lead roles. A great script draws great actors, and the casting was excellent. Streep is one of the best actresses of all-time, Hoffman may be the greatest character actor of his generation, and Amy Adams is a legitimate up and coming actress about to become a major figure. Not all plays work as films, but Shanley's efficient direction shows that he has a wide variety of talents beyond just writing. There are limited settings, as one would expect from a theatrical adaptation, but the dark cathedrals, ancient Catholic school classrooms, and quiet rectories work well on the big screen, providing just the right atmosphere for the characters to thrive in. The story moves at just the right pace, slow but steady, and from the opening frame to the credits the tension builds to a thought-provoking climax.

What's Bad
The script drives Doubt, and while most will be mesmerized by the dialogue, some may be bored by the lack of action. Along the same lines, Doubt feels like a play; so those bored with the dialogue will also grow tired of the repetitive scenery and long scenes. There are signs that Shanley is a first time director, but some of the questionable decisions in terms of plot and subtext were risks most first time directors wouldn't take. Overall, there isn't much wrong with this film.

What You'll Remember
As one would expect, the acting is phenomenal. Hoffman and Streep steal the show, and their scenes together are electric. Streep is a lightning rod and plays Sister Aloysius with a fervent intensity that will call to mind childhood memories for anyone who grew up in a Catholic school. Hoffman plays Father Flynn so sharply that no one knows whether he is a good-intentioned progressive priest or a deceiving fake, but just like the kids in his class, the audience will want him to come back for time and again. Amy Adams, a subordinate both in character and in practice to Hoffman and Streep, is great as Sister James. The part demanded both tender passivity and stark veracity, and although Streep and Hoffman's characters draw most of the attention, Adam's Sister Flynn is who the audience will relate to. The only other character with a significant role is Viola Davis as Ms. Miller, the mother of the boy in question with Father Flynn. Davis is only on-screen for nearly ten minutes, but she is unforgettable as a mother at a crossroads. A look at the awards this script has already won tells you all you need to know about it, but Shanley's writing propels the great performances, presents a thrilling plot, and is one of the most thought-proving films of the year. Amidst the mystery surrounding Father Flynn are overarching themes of faith, religion, and morality, and there are many questions left unanswered. The ambiguous nature of these fickle issues mirrors the way they are addressed in reality, and Doubt will likely tell the viewer just as much about him/herself as it does about the characters on the screen. In the end, Doubt brings so much to the table; it's a cautionary tale, a fable, and an ethical dilemma, all with driving intensity both in plot and in performance. It is the rare suspense film that asks hard questions, leaving the viewer to ponder them after the brilliant conclusion.

Good for: theater fans, actors, fans of sharp dialogue, suspense fans, philosphers

Bad for: the easily bored, someone not looking to think in the theater

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