Friday, 2 January 2009
Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman give us two of the year’s best performances in this brilliant intelligent drama. Based on a play by John Patrick Shanley (who also wrote and directed the film), Doubt takes place in a New York Catholic school in 1964, where Sister Aloysius (Streep) is the stern and greatly-feared principal (the "dragon"). Aloysius is full of certainty and desperate to protect the ways of the past. Father Flynn (Hoffman) is the voice of progress, who wants to lighten things up a bit. Aloysius is suspicious of Flynn from the start and circumstances lead her to the conclusion that he is a child molester. But Sister James (played well by Amy Adams) has her doubts. The boy in question is the school’s only African-American and so the film also deals with racial issues. One of the film’s most powerful scenes (and there are many) is between the boy’s mother (Viola Davis) and Aloysius.
In the end, the film leaves us with many doubts, as it intends to do. But there is no doubt that this is a film worth watching more than once. Besides the Oscar-worthy performances from the lead actors, who give us one memorable scene after another, we have the always thought-provoking dialogue, the eerie atmosphere (the wind is a major character in the film) and a perfectly-realised setting. This is a film that provides hours of discussion-material (and you all know how much I like talking about films) on themes like change/progress versus conservative values, inflexibility versus openness and, of course, doubt versus certainty. With its endlessly fascinating dialogue, Doubt moved so quickly that its end completely surprised me (I thought it was barely half-over).
Doubt is not perfect. Some of the scenes, especially involving Sister James, seem unnecessary or misplaced and I hesitated at first to give it four stars because I so desperately wanted to know more about each of the main characters. We come into their lives in the midst of a story and hear almost nothing of what went before. In a play/film like this, it is perhaps expecting too much to provide the kind of history I was looking for and certainly the dialogue and acting give us well-developed characters even without the history. So I have decided to give the film **** after all, with my mug held high, and this is no doubt going to be another of my top ten films of 2008 (I may even be inspired to write a theological review).