Doubt, adapted from the famous play by John Patrick Shanley, who directs, is the story of a progressive priest (Philip Seymour Hoffman) who is targeted for destruction by a cold, traditionalist mother superior (Meryl Streep). Or, according to my girlfriend, it is the story of a disgusting, paedophile priest (Hoffman) who is thwarted in his efforts to molest juicy young altar boys by a perceptive, courageous mother superior (Streep). Such different interpretations are precisely the point of Shanley’s tricky narrative: the audience is presented with plausible alternatives, and must accept that ultimately, there is not enough evidence to come to any firm conclusions. Some members of the audience, I could tell, were less than enthused with the film’s ambiguity. I could tell this because of the way they said, “That sucked!” on their way out of the theatre. Apparently, the title of the movie wasn’t enough of a heads-up for these folks, who probably walked out of Star Wars complaining that it was about outer-space.
The film, overall, is excellent, but – and I certainly hope this does not overly confuse Max – it does have a few flaws worth mentioning. First of all, there is director Shanley’s heavy-handed use of pathetic fallacy: the wind, the rain, and an unchanging, gloomy, grey sky are in danger of overpowering the actors, the sets, and the whole story. The wind is the most active of these: always swirling, blustering, knocking branches down, and nearly bowling over the characters. Hmm: could that be the wind … of change? Or simply destruction? Whatever it is, it’s damn windy, that’s for sure. Another overused trope has Streep’s Sister Aloysius frustrated to find that someone keeps opening her carefully and tightly closed windows: “Who keeps leaving this open?”, she hisses in one scene; if she had gone to Shanley’s writing class, she would know that the answer is “Vatican II”.
Additionally, I think the choice of Amy Adams as Sister James – young, idealistic, peppy – is a poor one. Adams own personality so closely matches that of James, that, with the dialogue she is given, she alternates between being a caricature and being inappropriately hilarious. In her early scenes, I was waiting for her to burst into a happy, God-fearing song. The awkward exchange between Streep, Hoffman, and Adams about secular Christmas songs is a low point for Adams: “I like Frosty!”.
But measured against the whole, these are minor concerns. Hoffman and Streep are mammoth talents, and both show well. Streep steals it with a (curiously underrated, as I look around online) performance that actually makes the audience like her horrible character, but Hoffman is every bit as good as the priest we want to like, but aren’t quite sure about.
Hoffman has tremendous physical skills; he uses his face and body as well as any actor I can remember. His usual mode is to bring an inscrutable, personal discomfort to all of his roles: it is impossible to say if it is a physical or emotional discomfort, or even if it is deliberate or simply part of his personality. The effect of it is to add an undecipherable layer to his characters, making them somewhat opaque and thus compelling. Think back even to the twitchiness of his private-school bully in Scent of a Woman, which took the part beyond the two-dimensional brat it was written as. There is something of this in everything he plays, and it is always fascinating to watch.
As for Streep, you get the usual brilliance in this movie, as well as the usual fascination with accents. Here, she adopts a light, Long Island sound, with its nasal pinch and clipped final consonants. Some have complained that the accent is distracting, but it works for me: Sister Aloysius has climbed the ladder of the Catholic church to a high position for a woman, and conducts herself with a great deal of put-on gravitas, especially in her speech and vocabulary, but Streep lets the working-class voice seep out every now and then, undercutting the nun’s pretentions and giving her dimension.
The writing is as tight as a garrote, and the story keeps you pinned to your seat, although you know the film will offer little in the way of answers or resolution. It stays very true to the play in this sense, although I suspect that Streep makes Aloysius’s arguments much more convincing than any of the Broadway journeymen who played the part onstage: she is, ultimately, more believable than Hoffman, in my book, but not enough to upset the balance of uncertainty on which the story depends.
This style of narrative – based on strongly-opposed and equally-weighted viewpoints, the avoidance of certainty, and the undermining of the audience’s interpretive strategies – has been in vogue for quite some time, first onstage and more recently onscreen, and I have to admit that it is growing a little weary. But it is still an effective structure, and Shanley’s Doubt is one of the strongest and most successful examples of it. All in all, a thoroughly enjoyable film with excellent performances, great pacing, and one of the strongest scripts in years.