Revealing Virtue In The Anti-Absolutism of 'Doubt'

Meryl Streep as Sister Aloysius i

Despite her monolithic worldview and cold demeanor, Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep) does understand that not everyone can live up to her strictures. Miramax Films hide caption

itoggle caption Miramax Films
Meryl Streep as Sister Aloysius

Despite her monolithic worldview and cold demeanor, Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep) does understand that not everyone can live up to her strictures.

Miramax Films

Doubt

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

Rated PG-13 for thematic material.

Philip Seymour Hoffman as Father Flynn i

The progressive and amiable priest Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) illustrates that doubt can be as vital as certainty. Miramax Films hide caption

itoggle caption Miramax Films
Philip Seymour Hoffman as Father Flynn

The progressive and amiable priest Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) illustrates that doubt can be as vital as certainty.

Miramax Films

John Patrick Shanley's film of his play Doubt is a heavy slab of dramaturgy: It's dark, somber, yet unbelievably intense. Even opened up for the screen, with air and trees and extra kids and nuns, it has the compression of great theater. One confrontation forces the next, and backs are driven against walls.

It's set in 1962, in a church and boy's school, where Father Flynn, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, delivers a sermon asserting that doubt can be as vital to humans as certainty, as faith.

In that era, an age of absolutes, few understand what he's talking about — least of all the school's severe principal, Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep). Why, she wonders, this liberalism? There must be a sinister motive.

Sister James, a fresh-faced, hopeful nun played by Amy Adams, notices Father Flynn paying special attention to the school's sole — and very vulnerable — African-American student, who returns from a private meeting with the priest looking shaken.

Flynn is lured to a meeting with Sisters Aloysius and James to discuss the coming Christmas pageant. And the interrogation that follows is circular yet driving. Carefully, Sister Aloysius drops the student's name.

Drops it, we should note, in an accent not far removed from Edith Bunker's — which, among these naturalistic actors, can be distracting.

Yet Streep's busyness is riveting. She shows that Sister Aloysius, however monolithic her worldview, is alive on the inside: The constant asides under her breath suggest she understands that people might not live up to her strictures.

In Flynn, though, she might have met her match, because he has what she doesn't: the privileges of patriarchy. On one hand, he's generous, progressive; he sees how this discriminated-against boy needs a father figure. But his sense of entitlement is vast.

Hoffman often overstresses the grotesqueness of his characters, but this is one of his best performances, warm and likable. His Flynn doesn't believe he's a predator, so we can't quite either.

We understand why Sister James wants to see the good in him, and Amy Adams, with her cute little overbite that seems an extension of her eagerness, makes the sister's struggle to shine extremely touching.

There's a fourth major performance, brief but breathtaking: Viola Davis as the boy's mother, who in her desperation to see her son survive has made questionable choices. But in the end, it's her view that makes our hearts bleed. The issues here ought to be clear-cut, but in every exchange Shanley drives home the doubt.

Roger Deakins' cinematography could hardly be crisper, more focused. There is no escaping the starkness of this universe. It is heavy-handed on one level, but that heavy hand sure knocked me for a loop: It took me a while after the movie ended to stop shaking.

Shanley understands that the most essential art of the dramatist is to set down points of view that can't be reconciled. He makes visceral the idea that one can be right but never absolutely right — that the capacity for doubt, which can devastate us, might also be our last, best hope of understanding the world.

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