Friday, January 30, 2009

Movie #10: Doubt (2008)

If the questions and themes that are addressed in John Patrick Shanley's DOUBT, the film adaptation of his multiple award-winning play, seem a little obvious, the beautiful cinematic quality with which DOUBT is filmed more than makes up for it. Here is an adaptation from the stage that manages to completely work as a film, and doesn't feel (like MAMMA MIA reviewed earlier) like a fish out of water.

Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is the new priest at the Catholic church. A self-admitted progressive, he smokes, takes sugar with his tea, and enjoys the use of a ball point pen. All the things that positively rankle Sister Aloysius's nerves. Meryl Streep at first seems like a caricature of all the Sunday School nuns who rap knuckles with rulers, but her mannerisms and archaic view of religious life come into sharp focus when Father Flynn's motives and actions pertaining to an alter boy are brought to life.

The acting is top-notch, but between Hoffman and Streep you wouldn't really expect any less. The surprise acting comes from Amy Adams, who uses her innocent, wide-eyed persona from JUNEBUG and ENCHANTED to different ends as the naive Sister James, caught between the enormous wills of Father Flynn and Sister Aloysius. And Viola Davis, as the mother of the alter boy, may only be in one scene, but that scene is so powerful and the twist of the knife that is her dual confession to Sister Aloysius so painful that her that's imparted so shocking that her performance may in fact be the most riveting in the whole film.

The other big surprise is Shanley's direction. His ability to take something from the stage and imbue it with the grace and movement necessary for a film is assured, and perhaps allowed him the ability to emphasize certain aspects that, in a play, would be difficult. Father Flynn gives three sermons during the course of DOUBT, but the second one, concerning gossip, is the only one where Shanley actually films the story being told, about a woman who gossips and is punished by having to tear open a down pillow and collect all the feathers that blow into the wind. Why this sermon, and not the first one? It's finally made clear in the climax of the confrontation between Streep and Davis, and Shanley sets up an overhead shot, looking down at Sister Aloysius, the wind blowing the dead leaves all around her, feathers to be picked up. There are other visual hints and images that recur throughout the film: the wind is constantly finding its way into their lives - blowing down branches that hit one nun, coming through the windows and scattering Sister Aloysius' papers. Father Flynn at one point is troubled as he walks the hallways of the school - the stained glass window of the Lord's eye seems to follow him, separated by the spindles of a staircase.

But perhaps the best trick Shanley manages in DOUBT is the way he expertly plays his audience to fall into the same trap his characters do. DOUBT is not about whether or not Father Flynn actually did the things Sister Aloysius accuses him of. It's about our human tendency towards certainty, towards assurance that we know what we know. When I watched DOUBT I was entirely certain as to whether or not Father Flynn did what he is accused of. But something happens near the end of the film that smashes through that certainty, and left me with doubt as to my assertion.

That in itself isn't the trick Shanley pulls off in DOUBT. At the very end of the film Sister Aloysius admits that doubt has crept into her as well, but what's amazing is that her certainty was the exact opposite of what mine, and I expect the audience's, was. It's a revelation, and her anguish at the end as she admits this to Sister James that stayed with me for days after watching the movie.

How DOUBT received nominations for all four of its principle actors as well as its screenplay but failed to get a Best Picture or Director nod is beyond me. Maybe the fact the play already won a Tony Award, a Pulitzer, and the Drama Desk award was enough. A shame, though, because this is definitely one of my Top 5 films of the year.

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