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Doubt (2009) Director John Patrick Shanley 8 February 2009

Posted by jordanfarley in Uncategorized.
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One thing you don’t hear about Doubt is that director John Patrick Shanley’s last directorial effort was the bizarre Tom Hanks film Joe Versus the Volcano. It’s strange that the man behind one of Tom Hanks’ truly bad films could craft a film of such (apparent) intelligence and maturity but a lot can happen over the course of 19 years.

In Doubt Meryl Streep plays Sister Aloysius a nun and iron-fisted principal of St. Nicholas Catholic School in the Bronx. Sister Aloysius does not take kindly to the priest, Father Flynn, (the excellent Philip Seymour Hoffman) and his attempts to make the school a friendlier environment for its students. When the suspicions of a young nun, Sister James (Amy Adams) seem to indicate that Father Flynn may have acted inappropriately with a black student Sister Aloysius has all she needs to confront Flynn in a one minded drive to force him to confess guilt.

It will be very clear to even the most casual cinema goer that Doubt is based on a stage play, not just because of the limited confinements of the school, but also because it is a character study which practically sets the screen alight with its electric dialogue and dramatic confrontations between Flynn and Aloysius. The plot itself is also very stagey. It is supposed to be ambiguous as to whether Flynn is guilty or not but it’s quite apparent by the end where the film makers’ sympathies lie. The unfortunate result of this is that the story itself doesn’t really satisfy, but where Doubt really shines is in its performances.

Streep just noses it as the best of the bunch. She has served up very few bad performances in a lengthy career (except Mama Mia of course!) and rightly deserves the title of best of her generation. People have probably lost count by now of how many Oscar nods she’s had over the years and it’s got to the point now where they don’t actually bother giving her that many awards as it’s a given her performance will be among the best in any given year. Here she plays the strict nun to a tee. Admittedly it isn’t anything we haven’t seen before in Black Narcissus or The Magdalene Sisters but Streep seems to elicit so much fear from her co-workers that it’s hard for some of that not to rub off on the audience. She plays the little moments where she lets her guard down well, but big drama is Streep’s forte and it’s in the showdowns with Father Flynn that she impresses most. Her only slip up is unfortunately the horrible final scene where Aloysius’ emotional final speech is likely to elicit laughs rather than tears.

Hoffman, like Streep, never seems to put a foot wrong. One thing you can say for him is that he certainly gives it his all, whoever he is playing, and Father Flynn is one of the best roles of his career so far. It’s unfortunate that he won his Oscar for Capote where an earlier release date seemed to blind everyone to the fact that Toby Jones’ Capote in Infamous was much better, as here he shows the skills of a true craftsman. For much of the film we are left in little doubt that Flynn is a strong figure, a leader of men, strict at times but caring, sympathetic and above all human. Hoffman plays the character brilliantly, he becomes instantly endearing but then again something always feels a little off. He can shout with the best of ’em and again the second battle of words between Flynn and Aloysius proves to be his acting crescendo. If the acting gig falls through it’s also quite clear he could have a lucrative career as a preacher if his ability to give a sermon here is anything to go by.

Saucer eyed Sister James is handled well by Amy Adams who only suffers from being placed alongside two of the best actors in Hollywood today. Adams is perfectly suited to naive, uncertain characters and is probably the character the audience will find themselves sympathising with most as their allegiances are torn between Flynn and Aloysius. Oscar nominated Viola Davis also does well in her short time on screen as the mother of the boy allegedly abused by Father Flynn. It’s a testament to her abilities that we are still able to sympathise with the character after the disgusting stance she takes on what has happened during her discussion with Sister Aloysius.

Shanley does a decent enough job adapting his stage play for the screen though the direction does feel a little overwrought at times. The frequent use of dutch angles (where the camera is put on a tilt) in such a naturally creepy environment, coupled with the downright scary music and sound effects make Doubt feel more like a gothic horror than drama.

Doubt is clearly not a film for everyone. If you like your dramas overblown and your acting as shouty as possible then you’ll no doubt love this but it treads a very fine line between breathtaking and ridiculous, though thankfully for me at least it was more the case of the former.

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