Cast: Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Meryl Streep), Father Brendan Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman), Sister James (Amy Adams), Mrs. Miller (Viola Davis)
Director: John Patrick Shanley
Theatrical release: 12/28/2008
DVD Date: 04/26/2011
Running Time: 104 minutes
Note(s): Screenplay adapted from the Pulitzer Prize-winning and Tony Award-winning stage play Doubt: A Parable by John Patrick Shanley.
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Review: Sister Aloysius sees life in absolute terms: good and evil, right and wrong, Christian and pagan, proper and improper. There are no gray areas, and certainly no room for doubt. As the principal of a middle class Catholic middle school in 1964, she runs the institution — both the students and the resident teachers — with a firm hand. She resents, however, the easy camaraderie the parish priest and her organizational superior, Father Flynn, has with the students. She believes he's too easy on them, while he believes she's not progressive enough in her dealings with them. This conflict is largely confined to managerial style until one of the teachers reports to Sister Aloysius that she suspects Father Flynn may be having an inappropriate relationship with one of the male students. And not just any student, but the sole black boy in the school. Seeing an opportunity to rid the school of her adversary, Sister Aloysius aggressively sets out to prove Father Flynn guilty.
The first 30 minutes or so of this film is a stream of disconnected, loosely related scenes documenting life at the school. It provides a foundation for the action in the final hour, but viewers may well wonder what this film is about, if based solely on this extended introduction. Meryl Streep and Phillip Seymour Hoffman are really quite excellent in their respective roles of Sister Aloysius and Father Flynn, and it is interesting how they portray their characters. Sister Aloysius is ultra-conservative, yet Streep is animated and emotional in her portrayal; by comparison, Father Flynn is far more the liberal of the two, but Hoffman plays him with steady reserve. This contrast in characterization is one of the aspects of the film that makes it so effective.
There are, for all practical purposes, only two other characters in the film: Sister James (Amy Adams), a protégé of sorts to Sister Aloysius; and Mrs. Miller (Viola Davis), the mother of the boy Father Flynn is suspected of having an inappropriate relationship. Adams is OK in her role but nothing memorable; indeed, her character disappears for much of the second half and is not missed in the least. Davis, however, in an all too brief appearance, is exceptional. Her character raises possibly the most troubling issue of the film, when she seems to say that the suspected abuse of her son at school by a gentle father-figure is preferable to the actual physical abuse he receives at home from his real father.
Far more of a suspense drama than a mystery per se, Doubt is multi-layered, heavily nuanced film with fine performances. Even though the somewhat disappointing final scene is a little too much of a cliché — you just knew Streep's character would utter that line at some point — I found this thought-provoking film much more enjoyable than I otherwise thought I would ... and especially so after such a slow opening.
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