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Monday, January 5, 2009

Review: Doubt (2008)

* * * 1/2

Director: John Patrick Shanley
Starring: Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Viola Davis

John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt is a morality play about the nature and power of suspicion. It’s an effectively ambiguous bit of storytelling but, from a technical perspective, the film is ultimately rather uneven. The performances, however, are uniformly engrossing and the film’s take on gender politics is utterly fascinating.

It's 1964 and at St. Nicholas school Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep) rules with an iron fist, striking fear into the hearts of the students and the other nuns alike, particularly young Sister James (Amy Adams). When Donald Miller (Joseph Foster) – one of her students and the only African-American student at the school – is called from her class for a private conference with Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and returns behaving strangely and with the faint smell of alcohol on his breath, Sister James’ suspicions are aroused and she feels compelled to share them with Sister Aloysius.

What follows is a battle of wills between Flynn and Aloysius which is as much about Donald Miller as it is their differing views on the church – Flynn is progressive, Aloysius staunchly conservative – and a general battle of the sexes. While Sister James begins to change her mind regarding whether she thinks anything untoward actually did take place, Aloysius charges forward in her crusade, determined to force Flynn out one way or another, even attempting to rally Donald’s mother (Viola Davis in a small but unforgettable performance) to the cause. The question of Flynn’s guilt or innocence, however, is not the central concern of the story; it’s what Aloysius is willing to sacrifice in her relentless pursuit.

The relationship between Flynn and Aloysius – indeed, between men and women in the story – is interesting. As principal, Aloysius is a figure of authority, but as a woman within the Catholic hierarchy, she also has little to no power in the grand scheme of things. When Flynn comes to her office for a meeting, he takes her seat behind her desk and waits to be served tea by her and Sister James. He must be deferred to just as, if Aloysius wishes to do anything about her suspicions, she must defer to the judgement of the bishop and if she wants to know about Flynn’s experiences in previous parishes, she’s expected to speak to the priest there rather than a nun. Flynn is infuriated by the suggestion of impropriety not just because it’s an ugly thing to be accused of but because, as far as he’s concerned, Aloysius has no right to question him because there are no circumstances under which he’s answerable to her. He makes her out to be the villain for even daring to question him and in her solo crusade the film seems to take his side, though I disagree. When it comes to the suggestion that a child might be being abused, I think it’s fair to err on the side of caution and investigate. Aloysius asks him to explain two facts which he confirms as true: he had a private conference with the boy in the rectory and the boy had consumed some alcohol. Her questions are relevant and it would irresponsible not to ask them regardless of Flynn’s view of their power relationship.

Flynn is a man of contradictions. He believes that the church needs to be more open, that its members need to become like family to the parishioners because, as he sees it, there is no difference between them and the people. This concept of sameness, that no one is elevated above another by virtue of being a member of the church, does not extend to his relationships with the nuns. He and Aloysius are not the same; he is above her because he’s a priest and she’s a nun. “You have no right to act on your own,” he tells her upon learning that she’s spoken to a nun at his previous parish. “You have taken vows, obedience being one! You answer to us!” Not “God” but “us,” meaning the priests. Furthermore, while he sets himself apart by being a progressive Catholic, he nonetheless falls back on traditional ideas about the balance of power between the genders in his efforts to put Aloysius in her place. He doesn’t know how to deal with an assertive woman like Aloysius; he prefers women of the more meek and submissive variety like Sister James who, though she brings the initial questions to light also eagerly accepts his explanation as the gospel and is willing to drop the matter immediately.

The performances are all good but the direction by Shanley is lacking. There’s always an issue when a play makes the transition to the screen because what seems alive on the stage can seem static and limp on the screen. In his efforts to keep the film moving the way that a film should, Shanley makes some strange choices and is a little too liberal with heavy handed symbolism and because of this the performances aren’t really allowed to just be performances, they’re also being relied upon to buoy up the story, which is a heavy burden.

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