Friday, December 12, 2008

Doubt, doubt, doubt, doubt [Doubt]

Doubt [R]
Grade: B
Cast: Meryl Streep, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Viola Davis
Director: John Patrick Shanley

What do you do when you’re not sure?

It’s rare that a film sums up its theme so neatly in the first paragraph. Such is the case with Doubt, in which writer/director John Patrick Shanley adapts his award-winning stage play to the screen. Despite a couple of natural warning signs – a pretentious subtitle (A Parable) and a writer who goes by all three names – Doubt fashions a certainly good story.

Doubt is a story of possible pederasty set in a Massachusetts Catholic church and school. It’s also a story about the direction of the Church in the 1960s, in the approaching era of Vatican II. Father Flynn (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), the boyish new priest, believes in a friendlier church and a gospel of love. Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep) is the old-school nun who thinks ballpoint pens are the work of the devil. Their battle sparks over the Father’s interest in one boy, the first black child to enter the school. Is the priest merely putting his kindness into practice, or is there something more and improper?

Are those enough cultural flashpoints for you? The story is painstaking in developing a clash of old and new ways. Streep even symbolically uses the phrase “winds of change” to refer to downed limbs. We are spared the Scorpions showing up to perform their tune. But barely.

This subtle, hushed story is painstakingly intelligent, too. In our current movie climate, that’s a hard virtue to ignore. Unfairly jumping to conclusions that might be right, its hero might be the unlikable shrew, and its villain the lively, amiable sort whom we would normally warm to immediately. Or maybe not. It’s careful not to fully convict, thereby leaving actions and righteousness in a shroud of mystery. Cinematographer Roger Deakins adds much to the mood with drab colors and careful framing, although a film about church in-fighting could use a stronger dose of pervasive doom.

Streep in particular does an excellent job feeling out her character. Yet I thought she and Hoffman, two of our finest performers, lacked something during their all-important confrontation scenes. Anne Hathaway and Rosemarie DeWitt feel like sisters in Rachel Getting Married. Leo and Kate feel like warring spouses in Revolutionary Road. Streep and Hoffman feel like actors, lost in their own individual orbits and methods.

Viola Davis adds power with a very small role that’s generating Oscar talk. Yet, her character’s motivation comes across as unrealistic. It seems like a dramatic curveball for the sake of a curveball. As a teacher, Amy Adams does well in her characteristically mousy role, but there’s no actress more in need of playing an edgy prostitute.

Still, if you’re looking for an intelligent late-year selection, this would be a hard film not to recommend, beyond all …. uh, yeah, you know.

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