“Doubt” is not a perfect film. Let me just say that and get it out in to the open. I have issues with the adaptation of it. 25 minutes into the film and only the first sermon in the play has been told; nothing else is from the play. The additions do not even make sense. They are not scenes of dialogue really. I have no idea actually how they even take up all of that time. It is remarkable how much time passes at the beginning of this movie without actually having anything near significant or interesting happening. The movie is brought to a halt before it has begun. Director John Patrick Shanley seems to feel that the more you expand the play the more cinematic it gets. The problem with this is when the additions to the film become repetitive, redundant and sometimes outright poorly done. For instance, the credits to the film show us following a child named Jimmy who is going to be serving mass and we see him getting up and making his way to the church as the credits appear before us. Who is this kid? He is not a character; he has no purpose except to immediately broaden the film’s setting to outside the parish. It is ridiculous though as the beginning of the film to be something completely unrelated to anything in the story. It feels misplaced and forced as a way to immediately establish a cinematic quality about the story.
There are other kids like William London who for some strange reason have recurring parts in the film which I do not mind so much but when it seems like they stick out and are intruding in a way into the film it becomes distracting. I also believe that we saw a bit too much of Donald Miller the child whose relations with Father Flynn cause suspicion. I am glad we got to see a little of him and his scene with Flynn that is not in the book I had no problem with even though part of me does not think we should have seen any of their relationship. Then there is a scene with just him and Jimmy which simply should not be there at all. They either should have chosen the scene with him and Flynn and a couple of other shots or cut out the one scene and shown a select few of the glimpses of Donald. I am sorry but I do not want to see a lot of the kid because it takes away from everything. I do not like him actually being physically brought into the story. So these are my big complaints about the film; that the film takes forever to actually get started, the parish is opened up too much and we see too much of Donald Miller, the child in question.
My smaller complaints have to do with a couple of unsubtle directorial choices. I am not sure if John Patrick Shanley was the best person to direct the adaptation of his own play. He does a decent job but it could have been better and he would have been in a bit of trouble I feel if Roger Deakins was not the one behind the cinematography. Anyways, he uses a wind motif throughout the film that comes off as obvious as well as an outright lame attempt at analogy involving a cat catching a mouse being parallel with Sister Aloysius and Father Flynn. Sister Aloysius even points it out as if it were not obvious enough as it is. I also still hate that last line however Streep pulls it off giving it significantly more weight than when I simply read it.
So these are my complaints but overall I very much enjoyed “Doubt” because of the performances and because of how interesting I find the story to be. Shanley uses the framework of a nuns certainty about the relationship between a boy and a priest without any proof and challenges his audience to experience doubt for ourselves and to dissect what that means and how someone can be so certain and how unsolvable the predicament is. The performance that relies on all of this working rests on Philip Seymour Hoffman as Father Flynn. On the surface Meryl Streep and Viola Davis actually have showier role to play but in terms of the success of perhaps the most difficult task, Hoffman gets that job. He plays every scene both ways simultaneously. If you decide to look at one scene and think he is guilty you can read it that way with massive amounts of depth going on. Then look at the scene again as if he was innocent and he feels completely sincere in his denials. He also has genuine moments that could be read as being guilty and others with nothing but sincerity. He actually made me feel more confused than ever about what I felt Father Flynn and what his relationship with Donald Miller is. He filled me with more doubt than ever and since Shanley’s purpose is to have you experience doubt or certainty or at least something involving what you think about Father Flynn, Hoffman succeeds at making some people feel certainty and others doubt. Added to all of this he creates a complete character; one that believes in changing the parish with the times, a man who takes pride in being a man who has power in the church, who tries to inspire others but does not take any crap from anyone. He tries to connect but does he connect too much to Donald? He is a strong believer of changing with the times but is not about to give up his patriarchal position and fully believes in the hierarchy established in the church. He taks a pleasure in his position and enjoys the power of the men; he loves the idea of the male camaraderie and fully believes in the submissive position that the nuns hold in the church and that that is the way it should be. He is completely comfortable sitting in Sister Aloysius' chair when he enters her office, when Sister James serves him tea he does not see her as being nice but you can see he believes this to her duty. He seems to take pleasure in being a mix between someone that people look up to but also having the power to subtly intimidate others. He is very likable on the surface and does seem to genuinely want to be there for the boy no matter what the consequences are but under the surface he has some particularly negative qualities about him. If I had to pick I lean towards his innocence based on the fact that he tells the Sister to ask the boy herself. But again, after I saw it I was leaning towards guilt. This is the mastery of his performance.
Meryl Streep although in a very showy role really steps up her usual game to bring an engrossing performance that drags you into the film whether you like it or not. She displays a ferocious demeanor that actually made me want to side with her because she is the only one who is sure of anything. Her certainty and relentless action to take Father Flynn down seems to be the form her distaste for the hierarchy and lack of power that the nuns have has taken. Father Flynn represents everything she hates. He is well liked by most of the students and he holds and freedom and power within the church that she wants. She is the principal and holds a self instigated reputation for being cold and intimidating and yet she does not hold the power her position suggests because she is a nun. She seems to act out her disapproval for all of this by putting all of her power into taking Flynn down. It is a very interesting dynamic that these two have and makes you wonder how sure she actually is and how much is it is justifiably deep seeded resentment.
Amy Adams is going to go more under the radar for having the most subtle performance but she is not the weak link here by any means as she more than holds her own with the rest of the cast. Sister James represents the audience and our perspective in a way, at first wanting to be sincere in her suspicions but eventually regretting telling Sister Aloysius at all. She perfectly conveys the innocence and hopeful qualities of someone who is still quite new to much of the world and who just wants to do good by connecting to students. I liked the addition of seeing her teach in the classroom and trying to emulate Sister Aloysius’ teaching methods while not feeling it to be right in her heart. Adams is one of my favorite working actresses today and I cannot wait to see how her career unfolds.
Last but certainly not least is Viola Davis in a show-stopping, film-stealing performance that still sticks with me. Her one 8 minute scene or however long it is actually does manage to steal the film as everyone says. This is not an exaggeration. She does so much with her character in such a short amount of time that she could have starred in the film and I would have felt just as much development with her character. Meryl Streep barely registers on the radar during this scene; that is how good she is. Yes this scene is sort of the center of the play in many ways and yes it is a scene that is meant to have this sort of impact but that does not make it any less substantial that it does. The scene sent me into tears by simply hearing the words and seeing her face. There is no music manipulation here and we are given n openly raw performance that feels devoid of any sort of acting actually happening. I felt so thoroughly that she was a real mother from 1964 and not an actress playing this character. The line “Whatever it is, it’s just until June” sends shivers down my spine even now. This could be the most powerful scene in cinema in the year 2008 for me. And it is because of her.
There are several other fantastic scenes and this is why I think that while the film has its definite issues, some more harmful to the film than others, the big scenes that are the most important are done magnificently. The scene when Sister James and Sister Aloysius confront Father Flynn with their suspicions is filled with significant tension. The scene when Father Flynn gave his sermon about gossip and intolerance was inexplicable frightening as Father Flynn inflicted his intimidation through the form of a sermon that not so subtly addresses the nuns. The scene when Sister James and Father Flynn have their discussion is a subtle and touching one. The scene however that will be on my Top Scenes of 2008 and it will be very high is the one in which Father Flynn and Sister Aloysius really go at it when he finds out that she has spoken to Donald’s mother. This is one of the greatest actors ever and one of the greatest actresses ever going at it at the top of their game, pulling out all of the stops as they just put it all out there. This is a tour-de-force scene, one that left me breathless. It is inexplicably available on youtube as an extended clip that apple put up. It is about 6 minutes long even though the scene continues after the clip ends; this is essentially the climax of the film.
While I do not think this should be nominated for Best Picture at all, I do think this is a worthy film in many ways due to the across the board incredible performances, the film’s beauty is perfectly conveyed through Roger Deakins and the fact that overall I feel that the film is effective especially in the scenes that matter; these scenes are all stellar. The film is mired down a bit though from getting such a slow start, opening up the parish too much, showing too much of Donald Miller and Shanley’s unsubtle direction at times that likes to think itself more clever than it actually is. It is a mixed bag but one well worth seeing because its successes are more substantial than its faults.