by Ken B.
Despite every internal feeling in its favor, she never says the word “molest”. Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Meryl Streep) will instead repeat time and time again, in growing degrees of feeling, that there is something very wrong about the direction of the interactions between Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Donald Miller (Joseph Foster II), the first black child to attend the Catholic school that Sister Aloysius is the principal of. She will also not stop her case, despite the fact that there is no sustainable evidence to support her claims. The young nun and eighth grade teacher Sister James (Amy Adams) is convinced that it’s Father Flynn’s progressive and relaxed nature that concerns the uptight and intimidating Aloysius, but she won’t hear any of this. It is an evolving clash of wills between these three and Donald’s mother (Viola Davis) that makes John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt a compelling and riveting drama.
The events transpire in the Fall of 1964 in New York. Aloysius first begins to wonder if something is being hidden after Flynn gives a sermon on doubt, using references to the societal aftermath of the Kennedy assassination as part of a point in it being as effective as certainty. Wondering what would influence the want to speak on an uncomfortably ubiquitous subject such as doubt, she and Sister James begin to observe Flynn’s activity, and soon, the elder one begins to gather great suspicion between the priest and Donald, while Flynn says and Sister James believes that it is simply to protect the boy as the only black person in the school.
It’s second nature to see the character most prominent within a work as a protagonist, but it’s hard to find the necessary sympathy for Aloysius. Often, especially with students, she appears to be little more than a nasty, bitter authoritarian, not showing substantial ranges of very obvious emotion until the film’s final moments. This difficulty in understanding the character is done thanks to brilliant work from the always brilliant Meryl Streep. Amy Adams portrays Sister James with the assumed sense of the character’s sudden realization of those around her, taking a back seat to initial naivety, both professionally and personally. As the questioned priest, Philip Seymour Hoffman is masterful – a climactic scene with him and Streep is both compelling and terrifying as actors disappear and characters reign. The charisma and life that Hoffman gives Father Flynn now additionally serves as even more proof of a life concluded far too soon.
However, one performance that must not be overlooked is Viola Davis’, who rightfully earned an Academy Award nomination for her performance (as did Streep, Hoffman, and Amy Adams). Despite a minimal amount of screen time (less than twenty minutes), Davis fills her character with conflicted emotions – her want to find justice perhaps overlaid a rocky personal life, and the need for her son to graduate from the eighth grade at the school in June in order to get into a good high school. She has two major scenes, and in the second, an introduction of a deeply questionable viewpoint regarding the issues at hand casts even more doubt over the events. Doubt, indeed, is a fitting title for this story, as it manifests itself over every facet of this 104 minute film.
Doubt takes place in late autumn, with cold rain and wind summarizing the weather. The film’s aesthetic reflects this, with Roger Deakins’ stunning but understated cinematography focusing on a dull and dim greyish format, with often the most colorful thing being Father Flynn’s robes during services. As is fitting, there is also an absence of bombastic music, instead leaving most music in the movie to be highlighted by church organ music, which provides a chilling close as the film fades out.
Based on the play of the same name and written (both for the stage and the screen) by its director, John Patrick Shanley, Doubt leaves you without answering any questions definitively. This is one of those rare instances where such a choice is more wise than foolish. By leaving the door open for further speculation and discussion, Doubt reveals itself as a powerful allegory for tolerance, will, and morality. It arrives, presents, and departs, providing an open door for interpretation and the ideas to be collected.