Saturday, January 24, 2009

A movie review: Doubt

Doubt (2008)

Director - John Patrick Shanley
Writer - John Patrick Shanley (screenplay)
Meryl Streep - Sister Aloysius Beauvier
Philip Seymour Hoffman - Father Brendan Flynn
Amy Adams - Sister James
Viola Davis - Mrs. Miller

Going to St. Nicholas Catholic school in the Bronx in the 1960s was never easy. Speaking out of line in class would earn you a one-way ticket to Hell (not literally of course). The Hell I refer to is that of the office of Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Meryl Streep), the nastiest nun you’ve ever met. Ruling with her own version of an iron fist, Sister Beauvier was the last person you wanted to see after breaking one of a thousand rules.

This was not uncommon, so I’ve been told. Catholic school is place of discipline. It is also a place that puts people in positions of power, a hierarchy, and perhaps, just maybe, it lends itself to a bit more secrecy than other institutions of learning.

And so we are thrust into this community of the church in the middle of a changing wind. A new Priest, Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) has started his time at the school and is immediately brought under the scrutiny of Sister Beauvier. Father Flynn is likeable, amicable, and smiles at all the children. She of course is the exact opposite. This changing of the times is not something she wants to accept.

But Father Flynn is not the only change. Sister James (Amy Adams) is fresh-faced and eager to please. She loves teaching History and takes pity on students with bloody-noses. As Sister Beauvier points out directly to her, Sister James is very naïve.

The story of Doubt centers on the premise that what we think we know may not always be true, and what we want to be true may not always be so. Father Flynn becomes the center of a scandal (though central only to the 3 main characters) involving the potentially improper abuses of a young boy. The boy happens to be the only black child at the school and comes from an abusive home. Father Flynn seems to take a special liking to him, at least that is what the Sisters believe they have witnessed.

It would seem that the film revolves around the classic case of he said/she said, and that would be a good way to start to think about the implications of the movie. But it goes deeper than that. Amy Adams gives an amazing supporting role performance as the nun who must decide if she is strong enough to believe in what she feels to be right. Is she just a naïve new teacher who cannot see that sometimes people are bad? Is she able to decide for herself what the truth is?

At the center of this film is the power struggle between Sister Beauvier and Father Flynn, each unwilling to back down from their own assertions, each unable to produce clear and practical evidence to support his or her claims. Viola Davis plays Mrs. Miller, the mother of the young boy caught in the middle of this struggle. Her role has been applauded by award nominations, though a minor role, and perhaps rightfully so. I felt like she added a great deal to the movie in her limited time on screen with Streep, and by the conclusion I feel that her role was much more important that I originally gave it credit.

What does it mean to spread opinions based on nothing more than conjecture? How far does one go to find out the truth, and at what costs? This film comes out at a time when many question the central themes in their own daily lives. Priest abuse on children has been in the world news for years now, so it comes as no surprise a major movie would be made to discuss the topic. But this film is not simply a movie about whether a Priest abused a child, it is in fact a great study in character development and why people think and act the ways that they do. I found the ending to be a great moment in cinema.

And who would have thought the same person who directed this (John Patrick Shanley) is credited with just one other film, 1990s Joe Versus the Volcano?


No comments: