Film Review #184: Doubt
Director: John Patrick Shanley
Cast: Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Viola Davis
How do you know what you think you know? For much of John Patrick Shanley’s film Doubt, Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Meryl Streep) evades answering that.
“I have my certainty,” she snaps at one point and “I know people!” at another, when asked for evidence that Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffmann) is molesting Donald Miller (Joseph Foster II), the first Black student admitted to St. Nicholas, an old Irish Catholic parish school in the Bronx – something she’s had in mind would happen well before this particular boy returns from the priest’s office to history class “in an unsettled state” with alcohol on his breath.
It’s 1964, just before Christmas, and a year since JKF’s assassination – as Father Flynn reminds the parish in the sermon that opens the film, about the ways doubt binds us together as strongly as faith. It’s also a couple years into Pope John XXIII’s Vatican II, whose liberal reformist winds of change at first seem personified both by the film’s frequent gale-force storms and Father Flynn’s conviction that “the Church needs to be friendlier – people need to feel we are part of their family.”
“But we are not part of their family,” counters Sister Aloysius matter-of-factly in a meeting ostensibly about the Christmas pageant. She also dismisses Father Flynn’s suggestion to include “Frosty the Snowman,” arguing the song promotes a pagan belief in magic. On the other hand, as the school’s battle-ax principal, she likes students to believe she has eyes in the back of her head. She later tells Sister James (Amy Adams), “That’s how it works,” when the young nun protests, “The children are all uniformly terrified of you!”
The story moves along as a series of escalating clashes between Sister Aloysius and others in her campaign to thwart and banish this priest – with Flynn himself, with the earnest, gentle Sister James and, in one brief powerhouse scene, with Donald’s mother (Viola Davis, my vote this Oscar season for best supporting actress).
Doubt also works on the growing contradiction between two psychological trajectories. The first is our own emerging discovery that Father Flynn – profoundly self-deluded, armed with a new era’s persuasive vocabulary and an ancient entitlement – was likely headed right where Sister Aloysius discerned him to be going; the second, that fighting fire with fire has its own cost. As our certainty rises, hers eventually – tragically is a workable word here – crumbles.
These trajectories cross when Mrs. Miller explains that she took Donald out of public school because she was afraid the boys there might actually kill him for “his nature – for the way God sent him” – which his father has beaten him for too – a report that seems inspired in part by Sister Aloysius’ own confidence – the single bit of personal history she shares with anyone – that she was once a married woman herself, widowed by World War II.
Shanley’s original play, Doubt: A Parable, opened in New York in 2004, a couple years after this country’s explosive exposes of childhood sexual abuse by some Catholic priests. Winning both a Pulitzer and four Tonies, among other prizes, the play then toured extensively. Shanley wrote and directed the screen version, returning to his own boyhood parish in the Bronx for exterior shots.
It’s Shanley’s first film in eighteen years and such problems as the film has seem rooted in translating stage to screen. Still, these are distracting. There are more symbolic wind storms than any movie set in the Bronx really needs. And even though the great Roger Deakins shot the film, which is frequently lovely, too often the camera swoops around at great heights for no obvious reason, except that – freed from live performance’s earth-bound lines of sight – it can.
Such distractions sometimes overshadow Shanley’s more subtle use of his settings to mirror other issues his story explores, such as the tension between the Church’s twin duties in providing both sanctuary and vigilance. While a great deal of these characters’ attention goes to enforcing rules and to watch-dogging each other’s often ostentatious adherence to procedures, the contrary tradition of offering refuge to law-breakers is equally strong. And by making the range of such “law-breaking” quite broad in this film, Shanley suggests the issue is anything but isolated and occasional. Here, the impulse to shelter another is more likely to undermine obedience to authority than anything else.
Clearly Mrs. Miller sees Catholic school as a sanctuary for her son from informally but sometimes violently enforced mainstream mores. For Father Flynn to claim he was protecting Donald from punishment for filching altar wine means he understands the strength of this strain of Catholicism. The priest’s appeal to Sister James that she guard her own compassion is really an appeal that she apply it to him. And Sister Aloysius actively shields another nun, the elderly Sister Veronica, frankly enlisting Sister James in the deception, because Father Flynn will make Veronica leave if he learns she is going blind - even though this might be for her own good and, to press that point, she has quite a bloody close call because she can't see. Shanley sets most scenes addressing this tension in either the principal’s office or the Church garden. A vivid exception has Sister Aloysius and Donald’s mother leave the grounds of St. Nicholas entirely and continue their conversation out in the world, where it will matter most to Donald in the end, while walking to Mrs. Miller’s job.
Anyway, there is a final showdown. Here, Father Flynn wrings from Sister Aloysius the specifics of her first suspicion. She’d watched him through a window as he grabbed the wrist of another boy, that boy had pulled away, and that scrap carried the force of revelation. But Shanley’s parable invites us to recognize that art works in much the same way. By the time this scene arrives, a series of similar brief flashes have also prepared us for the priest’s sudden agreement to request a transfer. And when Flynn tries pleading with her – has she never sinned herself? – and she falters, derailed for a beat by some remembered anguish, I know my mind leaped back to that other scrap of history, that small detail about her own marriage once. Was there a deeply-regretted war-time affair, guilt over her young husband’s death – had Sister Aloysius herself entered the convent for sanctuary, or for atonement?
There’s plenty more in this deeply satisfying film, which really is a gift. I’m just shaking the package for you.
Doubt premiered on December 12 and should reach Syracuse any minute. A version of this review appears in the 12/18/2008 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly in the column, “Make it Snappy,” which regularly reviews both DVDs and current theatrical releases. Nancy is a member of the national Women Film Critics Circle. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.