John Patrick Shanley’s “Doubt”—based on his Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winning play—is a series of battles, with the feature bout between Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Meryl Streep) and Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman).
It’s 1964 in the Bronx, and Father Flynn is the new guy in town, armed with a fresh way of interacting with students. He has a laid back demeanor, and is conversational and friendly with the kids at St. Nicolas Church School. This is work based on theatre, so of course his character is the polar opposite of the rigid, traditional, unsmiling Sister Aloysius. They exist in an uncomfortable balance—she’s the school principal, he’s the parish priest. Streep, the greatest actor of our generation, and Hoffman, an actor of enormous depth and honesty, crackle in their scenes together. We know there’s a storm coming.
One of the best things about “Doubt” is the way it plays the audience. We don’t know what to think when the fresh-faced Sister James (Amy Adams) tells Sister Aloysius that she thinks something improper may have happened between Father Flynn and the vulnerable and friendless Donald Muller, the first ever African-American student at the school. Sister James is fighting with herself—just as we are—when she confesses her suspicions. She nails the difficult role of the audience’s moral compass. Has she done the right thing? We can’t be so sure. We have doubt.
You can’t take your eyes of Meryl Streep, whose character takes no time at all to make her mind up that something awful has happened. Her face is stone as is her will. Her self-belief seems unshakeable—but watch her eyes. They dart about, trying to ferret out the truth. Does she really think that Father Flynn is guilty, or is her personal dislike for the man obscuring his innocence? It’s difficult to like her at first, but we slowly come to see that she is a weary seeker of justice, and so we can at least respect her.
Hoffman’s Father Flynn is effective here because he plays him warm and likeable. He doesn’t see himself as a predator, so how can we? When he is confronted by Sister Aloysius with Sister James present, his reaction to the accusation is disgust, anger, and, most effective, a great sadness. He says what we all know: that even a whisper of such an allegation would kill his career.
“I can fight you,” he says resolutely, to which Sister Aloysius quickly rejoins, “And you will lose.” “Where is your compassion?” he asks. “Not where you can get at it,” she replies.
The battle lines are drawn when Sister Aloysius summons Mrs. Muller (Viola Davis) for a chat. All hail Viola Davis. In the best scene from any movie I’ve seen all year, she gives us a fiercely maternal but deeply wounded and conflicted woman who is struggling to love and protect her son in the best way she knows how—difficult for a working class woman in the 1960s. It feels like it’s her against the world.
Davis was robbed at this year’s Academy Awards. She deserved to win—not just receive a nomination—for playing the emotional heart and soul of an already emotionally engaging and extremely intelligent film.
Shanley gives us no easy answers in “Doubt.” I found my loyalties shifting long after the movie had ended. There’s an awful lot to digest here, and while the film can be exhaustingly intense, it is also wonderful, filled with sharp writing and powerful performances that achieves a relevance and urgency that most films lack. I found myself shaking both during and after “Doubt.” It’s a powerful experience.