Eugene Weekly : Movies : 12.31.08


Unknown Knowns
Not enough to Doubt
by Suzi Steffen

DOUBT: Written and directed by John Patrick Shanley, based on his play. Cinematography, Roger Deakins. Music, Howard Shore. Editor, Dylan Tichenor. Starring Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams and Viola Davis. Miramax Films, 2008. PG-13. 104 minutes.

An altar boy looks up as a priest gives his sermon. In the soaring dome over the altar, a trapped pigoen flaps its wings and tries to escape, fooled into belief by sunlight pouring through a Bronx church’s windows. 

Gee, what could that mean?

Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman in Doubt

The iconography of the pigeon could be debatable, just as it’s barely possible that the priest at the center of Doubt didn’t “interfere with” one of the altar boys. Not even the supernatural acting powers of Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman (or Amy Adams and Viola Davis) can save the movie version of John Patrick Shanley’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play. Oh, it’s a beautifully made film, mostly without portentuous music or awkward scene jumps, mostly well-acted. But its self-important questions, just like the pigeon’s windows, don’t open to fresh thoughts, air or freedom.

Responsibility for that lies with Shanley, who wrote the play and who directs the film. With their talkiness and pacing, plays rarely turn into good movies — witness Tom Stoppard’s stultifying version of his brilliant play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. But Shanley has movie experience: He won an Oscar for the Moonstruck script and directed Joe Versus the Volcano. Luckily, he moves beyond the play’s four characters and opens the movie up to a few other people. 

That includes many characters sorely missing in the play: the students at the parochial school attached to St. Nicholas, where Father Brendan Flynn (Hoffman) serves as parish priest. The film opens with a woman shaking awake Jimmy Hurley, an eighth grade boy who’s serving morning Mass at the church of St. Nicholas. Working-class Irish and Italians make up the parish and attend the school. The kids, a bit too well-scrubbed and youthful for actual pubescents, provide a good foil for the actions of their adult caretakers — Father Flynn, shiny young eighth-grade teacher Sister James (Adams) and Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Streep), the principal.

So many of the details work well, probably because Shanley grew up in the neighborhood he films here in a family much like that of young Jimmy. Those of us who have been altar servers will murmur in recognition at cross-topped stoppers for cruets, bells rung at exact times, vestments placed just so in the sacristy.

Partly because of the rituals, there’s an ungulfable distance between lay folks and religious authority. That’s one of the traditions Father Flynn wants to alter. He wants his congregants to feel that priests and nuns are their friends. But he surely doesn’t want to give up any traditional perks of a man of the cloth, whether that be drinking wine while the nuns drink milk, using his authority to control women or consuming his share of fine flesh.

Is the friendly reformer priest also a charming, loving predator? Would he take advantage of the new black boy’s loneliness (he’s the first and only African-American kid at St. Nick’s)? Sister Aloysius certainly thinks so. While their religious keepers chew scenery and rosaries during their confrontations, the children, including Jimmy (Lloyd Clay Brown) and new boy Donald (Joseph Foster), keep the movie grounded and remind the audience of real kids harmed by uncontrolled adults. 

Though it’s oddly more intimate than the play, the film still lacks an emotional core; there’s no true sympathetic character unless it’s Donald’s mother (Viola Davis), but she’s only on screen for a few minutes. And that lack is not quite Catholic. Whatever its many faults, the Church inspires passionate devotion, intimate and intense belief and fervent conviction. Shanley doesn’t evoke that. His movie concerns instead the gorgeously shot church interior, various Meaningful Moments and, in the end, the out-of-character plot device of the script’s final line. The Church was changing in the 1960s, and Shanley wants to show what lies ahead. But that requires a lighter touch than this heavy-handed movie provides.