The first time I saw the trailer for Doubt, I swore this was going to kick off a firestorm of controversy. Of course, I had no idea at the time that it was based on a stage play. I guess if there was going to be any outcry it would have happened then. Well, perhaps not, the Blindness protest didn't arrive until the film did. In any case, I was certain the subject matter hinted at in the trailer would set religious and conservative groups into a tizzy; however, I have not heard a peep. I guess the film is perceived to have little box office potential to begin with so they gave it a pass. Well, that or I just have no idea what I am talking about. Whatever it was I was thinking translated into me having a keen interest in discovering for myself what the film was all about.
When the time came, I sat there in a theater that was considerably more crowded than I was expecting; I watched and was amazed by what I saw. What I was expecting based on the trailer is not what I got. The film proved to be much more complex than I expected. It is a film that is superbly written and acted, it does not give up any easy answers, essentially putting the onus on the audience to weigh the proof, the evidence, and the persons to come to a conclusion about what the truth is. It is a difficult task to find said truth as nothing is plainly evident; every new piece of information adds a new layer of complexity to an already difficult task. I know I have my opinion of what happened based on what I saw and who/what I believe, but I have my doubts.
There is something that struck me during an early scene. It takes place in a church during Mass, Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is giving a sermon and it is pretty interesting, it is (of course) about doubt and how that feeling can be as unifying as anything else. What hit me hard is that I found myself paying attention rather closely. On the surface that act on my part does not seem all that strange, after all I was there to watch a movie, but I am also a practicing Catholic and over the years I often find myself tuning out during sermons. That's bad I know, but I cannot help it. Yet now, here I was, watching a scripted sermon being delivered by an actor that has a direct impact on the plot. It made me think about my tune outs, not paying attention to sermons that may or may not have an impact on my life (I am speaking in the positive way, I know it can be popular to bash religion and those who believe). It made me wonder what I may have missed. It is odd that a movie like this can make one think about such a small part of their own lives.
Back to the film at hand.
Doubt is set in the mid 1960s, in the shadow of JFK's assassination. At a Catholic school in Brooklyn a battle of wills is brewing between the charismatic and outgoing Father Flynn and the strict, rule by fear, school principal Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep). The main issue at hand is this: the school has accepted its first black student, and he is having a bit of a hard time adjusting, nothing terribly overt. Father Flynn takes an interest in him and attempts to help him through tough times. Of course, there could have been something else going on, as we are not privy to their meetings, we only witness a shared hug and a couple of smiles pass between the two.
Sister James (Amy Adams), a happy, innocent young history teacher tells Sister Aloysius of the meetings and the firestorm begins. Sister Aloysius, upon hearing what happened, fills in the rest of the story. Becoming convinced of improper contact between Flynn and the boy she sets off to get him out of the school and away from any more potential problems.
It is much more intense than my description. The story continues to build to a fever pitch and is written in such a way that both sides are easily believable. Sitting there and thinking about it now, it is so much more than what I was expecting. Father Flynn and Sister Aloysius are fully fleshed out characters. They are strong in their convictions, firm in their beliefs, and neither side is willing to step back.
The screenplay by John Patrick Shanley is magnificent. It holds itself back from revealing too much. I kept waiting for all to be revealed, but when it wasn't and the credits began to roll, I could not help but be just a little bit happy. It gave a conclusion that finishes the story yet fails to reveal everything, leaving it up to the audience to interpret what actually happened. Even better than that, the way it was left ensures that there will be multiple interpretations and no way of being positive of what exactly took place. It is all about the power of doubt and the effects it can have, and probably should have, on a person.
The acting is first rate. Meryl Streep is electric in her portrayal of Sister Aloysius. She brings such a commanding persona to bear that she comes across as terribly frightening, but also very sincere in what she believes. Likewise, Philip Seymour Hoffman's charismatic priest is a hard one to disagree with, but there seem to be some cracks around the edges helping encourage the titular doubt.
The supporting cast is also first rate. Amy Adams continues to impress in a variety of roles, her persistent innocence and willingness to believe here is endearing. However, the rest of the supporting cast is outshone in a two brief scenes by Viola Davis and her portrayal of mother of the child in question. Considering the allegations at work, you expect one reaction but get something entirely different and quite powerful.
Despite the great screenplay and performances, there is something that holds the film back from complete greatness. The direction is very stage-like. Yes, it is based on a play, but it feels like a play put to film, not a fully realized film in its own right. It may be minor, but it did affect my viewing. Still, there is no way I can not recommend the movie.
Bottomline. This is a powerful film that will make you think about the way you approach everyday situations, not to mention its ability to force you attempt to come up with a conclusion to the events of the film yourself. What happened? It could go in any number of directions, it could be easy to come up with what happened, but, are you sure?