Sunday, December 14, 2008

I Doubt you will hate this film

Poster art for "Doubt."

In Doubt, it’s 1964, St. Nicholas in the Bronx. A vibrant, charismatic priest, Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman), is trying to upend the schools’ strict customs, which have long been fiercely guarded by Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Meryl Streep), the iron-gloved Principal who believes in the power of fear and discipline. The winds of political change are sweeping through the community, and indeed, the school has just accepted its first black student, Donald Miller. But when Sister James (Amy Adams), a hopeful innocent, shares with Sister Aloysius her guilt-inducing suspicion that Father Flynn is paying too much personal attention to Donald, Sister Aloysius sets off on a personal crusade to unearth the truth and to expunge Flynn from the school. Now, without a shard of proof besides her moral certainty, Sister Aloysius locks into a battle of wills with Father Flynn which threatens to tear apart the community with irrevocable consequence.

Philip Seymour Hoffman as Father Flynn and Amy Adams as Sister James in "Doubt."

The marvelous Meryl Streep is frighteningly good as Sister Aloysius, the fire-breathing principal of a 1964 Bronx parochial school in John Patrick Shanley's powerful but stagy Doubt Streep will no doubt score her record 13th Oscar nomination as Best Actress for Sister Aloysius, who declares war on the parish priest, Father Brendan. Played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, Brendan appears more than ready for the battle.Already suspicious of the priest's embrace of the Vatican II reforms in his liberal sermons, the archly conservative sister - who finds ballpoint pens a newfangled abomination - senses ammunition when the naive Sister James (Adams) tells her that the school's first black student, an altar boy, returned from the rectory with the smell of alcohol on his breath.Sister Aloysius quickly concludes that her nemesis behaved improperly with Donald Miller (Joseph Foster II). And so might a contemporary audience that has heard countless stories of sexual abuse by priests over the past decade.But Shanley's Pulitzer-winning play - which he has adapted for the screen and also directed - is called Doubt for a reason. The movie's crux is Sister Aloysius trying to pin down the charming priest - and it's impossible to figure out from the text or Hoffman's skillful performance whether he's guilty as charged or merely the victim of the sister's witch hunt. Father Brendan admits taking a special interest in the boy, who is in a difficult situation because of his race. But he's admitting nothing, even as the sister's efforts to compel a confession escalate.While Hoffman is warmer here than in any previous screen role, Streep (stepping in for Cherry Jones, who created the role onstage) dominates the proceedings except for a single amazing scene.It involves not the priest, but a conversation between the sister and the boy's mother (Viola Davis) as they walk outside on a winter day.The mother announces a revelation that stuns the seemingly unflappable sister into momentary silence - and, in her single scene, Davis acts Streep right off the screen. Shanley works overtime to convince us of the story’s cinematic possibilities. The wind violently blows as Sister Aloysius’ suspicions grow. The camera is held at skewed angles when Father Flynn faces accusation. During one extended scene in Sister Aloysius’ office, there is a lot of fussy business over the window shades, which flood the room with interrogating light. Such intrusions are distracting, which may be why Streep goes big – she’s competing, in a sense, with the director. Sister Aloysius is a showy role - the quintessential tyrannical nun – and Streep goes with it. She makes her entrance viciously hushing the children during one of Father Flynn’s sermons, and soon she’s treating Father Flynn like one of those students, taking him into her office and turning the screws until he confesses. But does he have anything to confess? Doubt leaves us in doubt, thanks to Hoffman’s remarkable performance (by far the best in the film). Even as incriminating details mount, Hoffman gives Father Flynn so many layers we begin to wonder if he may be innocent – if his “spirit of compassion,” as he calls it, has been misunderstood. Doubt is less a story of sexual abuse within the church, then, than one of lesser, more insinuating sins: intolerance, impropriety, gossip. This is hands down one of the year’s best – as some awards groups are claiming – yet its central conundrum is still a riveting one: At what point might vigilance cloud our moral vision? A Chilling 4 on my "Go See" scale.

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