Religion has taken a beating in the current political climate, so John Patrick Shanley puts his Broadway play Doubt on screen pragmatically—as a showcase for our most revered, grandstanding actors. Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman play Sister Aloysius Beauvier and Father Brendan Flynn who, in the early 1960s, butt heads at The Bronx’s St. Nicholas parish school.
With this casting, Shanley means to dignify his theatrical treatment of the social conflicts before the Vatican II reformations. He needs the Streep-Hoffman pedigree, especially given the media’s recent anti-Christian—secularist—slant, typified by the widely celebrated Religulous where scoundrel-commentator Bill Maher bragged “Doubt is what I’m selling.” Maher’s silly, non-intellectual skeptic’s pursuit was meretricious. Shanley’s almost devout; he means Doubt to be taken seriously.
Problem is, Shanley examines faith (and doubt) while crafting what is essentially Broadway fodder. Sister Aloysius’ suspicion about Father Flynn’s relationship with an altar boy titillates contemporary controversy about abusive priests, same as the boy and priest’s hidden sexual identities pander to the Broadway market’s gay-friendly pathos. A classroom motto—“We have nothing to fear but fear itself”—refers to suspicion of modern ideas during the revolutionary ’60s, yet it also conveniently evokes contemporary cynicism about the church as much as personal, philosophical confusion.
Directing only his second film, Shanley plants careful details: the dawn procession of nuns in a rectory’s dark hallway; contrasting avuncular Flynn’s whiskey-and-rare-beef dinners to Aloysius’ spare milk-and-peas meals; the metaphorical use of weather (“I’ve never known wind like it. The wind has changed!”); even a metaphysical touch whenever Aloysius’ office light fixture flares out. These prepare for Streep and Hoffman’s big confrontations, which come off as stage business—acting bouts, not battles of conscience. Streep in her black bonnet and Hoffman with his meticulously parted hair and long, clean fingernails are never quite believable. Shanley hasn’t mastered the histrionic power evident in Ronald Neame’s near-classic theater-to-film movies The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and Tunes of Glory—duologues which were also sociological time capsules.
Had Shanley truly “opened-up” his play, he would have made cinema of altar boy Donald’s (Joseph Foster) isolation as a sexually questioning black kid integrating an Irish-Italian school during the Civil Rights era, rather than a sad, sweet, abandoned, “heartbroken” token of pity. Is this life or a conceit? Flynn’s opening sermon (“A lone man stricken with a private calamity, imagine the isolation”) poses a lovely, Rattigan-worthy thesis but it’s worked-out conventionally. Framing pale accusatory Aloysius against green office walls gives her a Margaret Hamilton effect, Flynn’s past “infringements” are teasingly ambiguous and Donald’s crisis gets twisted into his beleaguered mother’s (Viola Davis) shameless, showstopping, snot-dripping plaint. Shanley’s bald theatrical tricks erase the boy’s identity, simultaneously proffering both gay bathos and racial patronization. He’s that most condescending of all social constructs: a minority.
Doubt timidly approaches complexities that superb filmmaker Todd Solondz has taken us beyond. As for transcendent acting, Streep’s Dark Matter characterization revealed genuine spiritual/political conscience—what Flynn merely describes as “Your bond with your fellow being”—not well-intentioned formula.
Directed by John Patrick Shanley, Running Time: 104 min.
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