THERE IS NO EVIDENCE. THERE ARE NO WITNESSES. BUT FOR ONE, THERE IS NO DOUBT.
John Patrick Shanley reportedly told the actors who would play Father Brendan Flynn (Brían F. O’Byrne in the play, Philip Seymour Hoffman in the movie) the truth about the character. Only they were supposed to know whether or not Father Flynn had molested a child. The knowledge helps one actor understand his role, the lack of it helps the rest of the cast get in touch with their own feelings of doubt. As Father Flynn sermonizes in the beginning of the film: “Doubt can be a bond as powerful and sustaining as certainty. When you are lost, you are not alone.” The nuns who begin to suspect the priest are not alone – we in the audience share their feelings.
The year is 1964 and the setting is a Catholic church in the Bronx, New York. The nuns also run a school under the supervision of the strict Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Meryl Streep). One day, Sister James (Amy Adams), a young and naive teacher, makes a few observations and tells Sister Aloysius about them. Apparently, Father Brendan Flynn (Hoffman) had a meeting with one of the male students, but the boy seemed upset afterwards and Sister James could smell alcohol on his breath. Sister Aloysius decides to raise the issue immediately with Father Flynn, but he angrily refuses to discuss it; eventually, he tells the two nuns that he caught the boy drinking altar wine and didn’t say anything because he tried to spare him from embarrassment and make sure that he could continue as an altar boy. Sister Aloysius doesn’t believe him and decides to tell the boy’s mother (Viola Davis)…
Locations add a chilly touch
Shanley’s original play was a hit that garnered a Pulitzer and a Tony Award for Best Play. The decision to direct the movie adaptation cannot have been entirely easy; Shanley had helmed one film prior to this, Joe Versus the Volcano (1990), which was a box-office flop. But I suppose Shanley felt so strong about his great play that he couldn’t really see anyone else in the directing chair. The movie’s origins are obvious, but this is still far from a simple filmed play; Shanley and his team consistently focus on the actors’ faces because, along with the dialogue, that’s where the drama is. Some of the scenes run without interruption for a very long time, but they build in tension the longer they go on; two of the most stirring encounters are between Aloysius and the boy’s mother (Davis in a complicated, strong performance) and Aloysius and Flynn where the nun threatens to search every corner of the priest’s history until she finds one parent willing to stand up. The windy, autumnal Bronx locations add a chilly touch to the emotional confrontations between the main characters. Hoffman is elusive in a way that fits the central theme perfectly and Adams is thoroughly credible as the nun who starts the controversy but later wishes the whole thing would just go away. And then there’s the magnificent Meryl Streep as the ruler-wielding Sister Aloysius. At first, she comes off as the archetypal stern Catholic nun, but there is of course more beneath the surface; she brings a sense of humor to a character that is virtually played with only the face as a tool. Streep is a tower of strength all the way to that devastating final scene that underscores the loneliness of being the only one certain of the truth.
The story may be set in the 1960s, but it is just as essential today. Written shortly after the clergy abuse scandal in Boston, it addresses the crisis in an intelligent way but also has the guts to examine a feeling we often try to conceal: What if I’m wrong?
Doubt 2008-U.S. 104 min. Color. Produced by Scott Rudin, Mark Roybal. Direction, Screenplay and Play: John Patrick Shanley (“Doubt: A Parable”). Cast: Meryl Streep (Sister Aloysius Beauvier), Philip Seymour Hoffman (Father Brendan Flynn), Amy Adams (Sister James), Viola Davis, Alice Drummond, Audrie Neenan.
Trivia: Natalie Portman was allegedly considered for the part of Sister James; Frances McDormand as Sister Aloysius.
Quote: “Doubt can be a bond as powerful and sustaining as certainty. When you are lost, you are not alone.” (Hoffman)
Last word: “What was always important to me is that the sense of doubt belongs to the audience. I’m not going to tell them what’s right and wrong. I wanted to simply make them think and feel something, rather than tell them what to think and feel. I wanted to apply the way I see things to a situation that was very fraught and seemingly insoluble and this led to a parish priest accused of taking advantage of a member of his flock. I wasn’t interested in the church scandals themselves, but I was looking for a polarizing situation, one in which most people would brook no hesitation in condemning a person – and then throwing those assumptions back at the audience in a different light.” (Shanley, EmanuelLevy.com)