Often stage to screen films can be recipes for disaster, but with enough competence and searing performances by an all-star cast, “Doubt” is a success.
If you’ve seen the trailers, the one thing that immediately stands out is Meryl Streep’s performance. Draped in a habit and completely immersed in the role of a hard-edged nun, Streep stars as Sister Aloysius. She’s the head of a private catholic school in the Bronx circa the late 1960’s. Sister Aloysius is nothing less than a tyrant, condemning Frosty the Snowman as a pagan hymn and barking at students who use ballpoint pens. In essence, her character is representative of the refusal to accept a time of myriad change, both in the world and the Church.
It comes as very little surprise, that she quickly becomes suspicious of Father Brendan Flynn (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), who’s new to the parish and has adopted the more carefree, open-minded attitude of the time. When a local teacher, Sister James, (Amy Adams) approaches Aloysius and indicates an alienated boy in her classroom returned from a rectory meeting with the priest smelling of altar wine, the nun pounces.
Meanwhile, Father Flynn is called in for a private meeting with the two where he becomes both defensive and offended by the accusations. Aloysius aggressively claims she will take the situation to the next level and calls in the boy’s mother for a conversation. Meanwhile, Sister James struggles to keep objective in a situation where there is considerable doubt and either side of the story could hold truth.
John Patrick Shanely, who wrote the stage play, does a fine job, for the most part, expanding the setting to cinema. With rustling trees, heavy winds and dark, somber colors, he achieves a mood that is indeed unsettling. His material is well written too. The dialogue absolutely crackles with insight and intelligence and anyone who has had any familiarity with the Catholic Church will notice the accuracy.
The performances are A+ across the board. Streep disappears into her character, accent and all. Her performance is both stubborn and ultimately vulnerable, effectively revealing a woman whose light has perhaps been burnt out by a series of events in her past. She does seem a bit taken back by Hoffman’s loud performance though, which involves quite a bit of yelling. Still, his priest successfully earns a great deal of empathy from the audience and the character is presented as one that the audience takes to, not an easy feat considering the allegations at hand. Finally, let’s not forget the outcast boy’s mother Viola Davis, who, in a brief scene, demonstrates Oscar-worthy talent.
Although the production is mostly successful, the film stumbles in the last act. The ending, which may have made for a powerful final moment on the stage, poorly translates to film and the whole story lacks closure. Still, “Doubt” has enough riveting moments and compelling performances to warrant the attention bestowed upon it.