Written and Directed by: John Patrick Shanley
Starring: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Meryl Streep, Amy Adams
Rated: PG-13 for thematic material.
Parental Notes: Although there’s nothing on screen that might be problematic for young viewers, the subject matter (doubts about whether a priest is assaulting schoolboys) and the overall style of the film are inappropriate for youngsters.
“Doubt” is an intense, very intelligent film, and seems rather out of place amongst the explosion-filled, often idiotic multiplex fare. It is character-driven, focusing on the clash between two complex, fascinating characters, and there are a great many things left to the viewer to interpret rather than explained directly. This is a challenging, intellectual film, and not for those looking for a couple fun mindless hours at the movies.
It is 1964 and in the Bronx, Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep) is the principal of St. Nicholas, a Catholic school. She inspires terror in the students, which is useful; she can get them hustled back into shape in no time when they misbehave. She despises laxness and the movement toward a softer, more friendly face for the Church — which is why she is not at all fond of the new parish priest, Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman). He is, as the new Vatican II guidelines encourage, approachable and kind. She disapproves.
Sweet, naive eighth-grade teacher Sister James (Amy Adams) observes that after a private meeting with the Priest in the rectory, the lone black student in the school returns to class distressed and with alcohol on his breath. Sister James is concerned, but Sister Aloysius is convinced. She sets up a meeting between herself, Father Flynn, and Sister James — ostensibly to discuss the upcoming Christmas pageant, but really to interrogate Flynn about his relationship with the boy.
Flynn is enraged at the implied accusations, and (perhaps rightly) accuses Sister Aloysius of wanting to drive him out because she disagrees with his progressive agenda. Sister James is torn between sympathy for Father Flynn, who appears to have the same kindheartedness that she does, and devotion to Sister Aloysius, who is her mentor and immediate superior. While the thought that one of her students could be suffering abuse distresses her, so does the thought of running Flynn off without thorough, incontrovertible proof — which is, of course, impossible to get. Everyone has their own agenda and their own doubts, including the boy’s mother (Viola Davis).
This is a demanding script, and the cast all rise to its challenges. Streep is magnificent, showing the different sides of Sister Aloysius with skill and humanizing a woman who otherwise would come across as a veritable monster. Hoffman likewise humanizes Flynn, walking such a fine line with his performance that it is impossible to definitively say whether the man is guilty as charged or not.
Word has it that writer-director John Patrick Shanley (who wrote the play, adapted it for the screen, and directed) only ever tells the actor playing Flynn if he’s guilty, and keeps the truth a secret from the rest of the cast. It’s essentially kept secret from the audience as well — and how each individual interprets the evidence presented in the film tells as much about the viewer as it does about the characters.
“Doubt” is not a cheery or a feel-good movie. It will not leave you with warm, fuzzy feelings and holiday cheer. It will push you to think, and think again, and that is all too rare in modern film.