By David Poland email@example.com
Review – Doubt, Part One
Reviewing Doubt really requires two different bits of discussion. First, there is the movie and its overall structure, skill level, etc. Then there is the question of what the movie is actually telling the audience… which is a matter of no small controversy.
First things first…
Doubt is an adaptation of the stage play, written by John Patrick Shanley, and here, adapted for the screen and directed by Shanley as well. I saw the film twice as a concession to the producer’s concern about launching prematurely in a last minute fill-in as opening night for Los Angeles’ AFI Fest. And while the two viewings will be more relevant to the second half of this review – the arguments about content – they did change my perspective on the filmmaking as well.
The film stars Meryl Streep in a rather brilliant performance, if too subtle for those who love something a more stage-y. The performance grew on me the second time around as the accent played less of a role and her cautiousness about where the boundaries as a nun became more pronounced for me. Phillip Seymour Hoffman gives a performance that could not have been any better.
But the truth follows both performances… different actors will deliver different interpretations. I never saw the stage show, but it is easy to imagine Bryan F. O’Byrne as a less rheumy, slightly more International Male: Irish Edition priest. And it is easy to imagine Cherry Jones tearing through the Sister Aloysius part and doing her thing, going both smaller and bigger with the role. But the stage was the stage and the movie is the movie.
The film sets up the proposition of the entire film crisply with an opening sermon about doubt. From the get-go, it is offered that doubt, in spite of the discomfort that it attends it for the individual, is not a weakness, but a much-needed strength. It is the lack of doubt that is truly dangerous. Part of the challenge for the audience – especially the first time around – is to remember that point… and if you are not inclined to agree, then to challenge yourself to learn the truth in its wisdom.
The second big sermon is about gossip and how it is irretrievable once let loose in the world. This too seems to me to be an irrefutable part of Shanley’s dramatic lesson plan.
Story structure becomes clearer, regardless of what you feel about the philosophies espoused, on multiple viewings. Shanley has a few subtextual tricks up his sleeve, which may or may not be more pronounced by his choices as a director. For instance, there are, it seems to me, parallel children at the school to both of the main characters. There is also the opportunity to sow seeds of doubt with a glance or an edit that allow audience members to imprint some of their own ideas on the story.
The weakest element in the writing is the third character in the central triangle, Sister James, here played by Amy Adams. The real life Sister James has a dedication at the end of the movie, so I assume that one of her personal stories was the inspiration for the whole thing. In any case, she is The Innocent in this battle of wills and in her lack of definition, in the ambiguity of her feelings about the truth, lies a big dramatic weakness… although ambiguity, I am told, is just what Shanley was after. Still, it’s not whether she really knows or comes down 100% firmly on one side that I see as trouble. The problem is that wherever she lands – and I’ll let you see the movie rather than argue hew position here – the motivations for her choices to feel this way or that are not half as clear as what drives the two leads. Even not knowing how she feels is a dramatic choice that could have been better exploited. As a result, she often seems a tool of the dramatist more than a central character in this drama.
The strongest secondary character is Mrs. Muller, the mother of the boy who may or may not be a victim at school… but who lives his whole life in dangerous territory and seems to be destined to continue to do so for years to come. Unlike Sister Aloysius and father Flynn, she cannot afford the indulgence of doubt or certainty. She lives outside the bubble of the church (or any relatively cushy existence), where practicality overwhelms severe moral judgment, of herself or others.
The power in this piece of drama, in whatever medium, is its ambiguity and the demand made of the audience not just to think, but to really explore. The weakness is right there in Mrs. Muller, though more so in Sister James. These characters, even more so in the literal light of film than on the stage, are real breathing characters, not just the representation of abstract ideas. Aside from the children, they are practically the only characters with more than 5 lines of dialogue or 2 minutes of screen time in the film. Shanley has decided, fairly enough, that children have nothing on significance to say on morality… they are simply acting instinctually or being acted upon. But the gaping hole filled by the silence of Mrs. Muller, who turns up again late in the picture, and the inability to focus of Sister James seem more unfinished than simply human. The great “missing” scene is between Mrs. Muller and Father Flynn. But the real key is Sister James. While I feel that Sister Aloysius has a breakthrough, of sorts, in the film, Sister James does not. She is, simply, soiled. And that was not quite enough in the light of the projector’s bulb.