In 'Doubt': Adapting A Parable Proves Problematic

Meryl Streep as Sister Aloysius Beauvier i i

Definitely De Rigueur: Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep) runs her parochial school with an old-school iron fist. Miramax Films hide caption

itoggle caption Miramax Films
Meryl Streep as Sister Aloysius Beauvier

Definitely De Rigueur: Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep) runs her parochial school with an old-school iron fist.

Miramax Films

Doubt

  • Director: John Patrick Shanley
  • Genre: Drama, Mystery
  • Running Time: 104 minutes

Rated PG-13 for thematic material.

Philip Seymour Hoffman as Father Brendan Flynn i i

Shadow Player: The reformist Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) arouses suspicion for his interest in one particular student. Miramax Films hide caption

itoggle caption Miramax Films
Philip Seymour Hoffman as Father Brendan Flynn

Shadow Player: The reformist Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) arouses suspicion for his interest in one particular student.

Miramax Films
Viola Davis as Mrs. Miller i i

Shouts And Murmurs: Donald Miller's mother (Viola Davis) says more with less force. Miramax Films hide caption

itoggle caption Miramax Films
Viola Davis as Mrs. Miller

Shouts And Murmurs: Donald Miller's mother (Viola Davis) says more with less force.

Miramax Films

Somewhere in its journey from stage to screen, John Patrick Shanley's 2005 Pulitzer-winner Doubt, a Parable became simply Doubt, losing the qualifier that follows that titular comma, along with the claim to universality that went with it.

Not surprising, of course. Parables are more or less de rigueur on stage, where the idea is to approximate reality, not duplicate it. Film, being a more literal medium, tends to bring metaphors crashing to earth when it renders them physical and specific.

And that's more or less what happens to Shanley's moral guessing game once the story is removed from its onstage Everyschool and set down in a solid, stolid parochial academy in the Bronx in 1964.

Meryl Streep's Sister Aloysius, a strict disciplinarian who rushes to shut windows whenever she finds them open a crack — lest some metaphorical gust of fresh air intrude on her musty domain — terrifies not just the students, but also her fellow nuns.

And she's less than fond of the newly arrived Father Flynn (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), who rather likes the breezes of change that are blustering outdoors. The two are perpetually at odds and not just over what turns out to be relentlessly symbolic weather.

They disagree on teaching — she the doctrinaire old knuckle-rapper, he the warm, inspiring type — and also on how best to shepherd their young charges past extracurricular difficulties.

When Father Flynn takes a new student — the school's only black child — under his protective wing, correctly surmising that he'll be subjected to hazing, Sister Aloysius worries about the extent of his interest in the lad, and with very little concrete evidence to go on, heads straight into pederasty-in-the-priesthood territory. Ugly confrontations ensue, with each battle leaving a few more doubts lingering in the air.

Doubt cast a long moral shadow on Broadway but seems blunter on screen, largely because Shanley's fussy directorial notions — a cat portentously brought in to catch a mouse skittering down school hallways, for instance — are less nuanced than the religious and moral arguments he's given his principal characters.

It doesn't help that he encourages stridency from Streep and bluster from Hoffman, which results in theatrical shouting matches where an anguished cinematic hush would almost certainly prove more effective.

The film's most wrenching performance, in fact, comes from Viola Davis, who plays the boy's worried mother as a woman who is in no position to raise her voice, even when articulating a startlingly unexpected parental position on what may have transpired between the priest and her son.

The others argue strenuously and occasionally even eloquently, to ever-diminishing effect; Davis speaks plainly and quietly, and leaves not a shadow of a doubt that the moral high ground is a treacherous spot to occupy in the real world.

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