DOUBT may have been a Pulitzer prize winning play. But the film version is dreadfully dull.
It’s set in 1964 at St. Nicholas School in the Bronx. Though the period details are authentic, this movie is flat, overly stagy and lacks any sort of inspiration or fire.
It was a man’s world in the mid 60s. The Catholic church was no exception.
Regardless of all that, SISTER ALOYSIUS BEAUVIER (MERYL STREEP) is the principal there. She rules with an iron hand. When naive young SISTER JAMES (AMY ADAMS) tells the older woman that the children are terrified of her, she remarks grimly, “That’s how it works.”
Into this highly structured environment walks FATHER BRENDAN FLYNN (PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN), a new priest who’s something of a reformer. He is more inclined to be tolerant and to push for modernization. Father Flynn believes in changing with the times.
Sister Beauvier is a traditionalist. She doesn’t care for Father Flynn’s methods. She’s content to overlook all of that for the immediate future.
But things rarely stay the same…
Donald, a young black boy, becomes a student at the school. He is awkward with the other pupils and becomes an object of ridicule. But he develops a closeness with Father Flynn that does not go unnoticed.
When it is discovered that Father Flynn had a private meeting with Donald in the rectory that he will not discuss openly with anyone else, Sister Beauvier sets out to destroy the priest.
She is a strong, self righteous woman whose need for power and control supersedes everything else. It’s her way or the highway.
She is going to take him down.
DOUBT has endless problems.
JOHN PATRICK SHANLEY is a brilliant writer and a very capable director. It’s possible that a good film (or even a great one) could have been made if he had merely decided to adapt his own play. But unfortunately he had to do both.
He was obviously not the ideal person to direct this motion picture. He may have spent too much time with this material to give it the fresh, exciting perspective that was needed so badly. A different editor would also have made a world of difference.
The scenes from the trailer crackle with enormous energy. They lead you to believe that DOUBT will be an acting tour de force. There is none of that magic in the completed film.
AMY ADAMS is not much more than adequate. She has some fine moments in a scene where she uncharacteristically berates one student. But that’s all.
PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN is solid but unremarkable.
VIOLA DAVIS (who plays Donald’s mother) is rather affecting in her limited time on screen. She has a great deal of difficult dialogue and she makes it chillingly accessible.
MERYL STREEP does some exceptional work. But she is not entirely believable as a renegade driven by her own savage principles. Though it’s worthy of an Oscar nomination, this is definitely not the most effective portrayal she has ever given.
Even the least noteworthy acting by Meryl is hundreds of miles away from a good performance by another artist. She is light years above other people’s standards. But according to her own, it’s strictly at the bottom of the pile.
Ms. Streep’s accent is too big. The approach is too broad.
But her Sister Beauvier is far from one note.
As the film wears on, you can see all of the layers and colours that Meryl has imbued within that character. She’s a flawed human being. Sister Beauvier is tough. Yet she can be capable of kindness. She has a great sense of humour. (As sardonic as it may be.) But she has her own sense of order and morality. That must prevail.
Or may God have mercy on your precious soul.
One of the main points of DOUBT is its unshakable ambiguousness. You really don’t know much more at the end than you do at the beginning. That’s enormously frustrating for those viewers who prefer their films more concrete.
However, that wasn’t a necessity. You don’t want an overly theatrical experience built on shifting sand that possessed a ridiculous conclusion.
But unfortunately that’s exactly what you get.
DOUBT is one of the great disappointments of 2008.
That’s only a well considered opinion.
But it is genuinely a personally defined certainty.