“Doubt can be a bond as powerful and as sustaining as certainty.” With faith comes doubt. Yet, in doubt lies suspicion, the potential for deceit, and the temptation to act wrongfully. Undeniably, the propensity to question personal beliefs, the people around us, and mankind in general is human nature. However, being uninformed and doubtful allows the human mind to wander and curiosity to mushroom. With that said, the only weapons to combat doubt are trust and/or investigation.
In 1964, as Father Brendan Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) delivers a revealing sermon about doubt and then calls Donald Miller (Joseph Foster) – St. Nicholas School’s first Negro child – down to the rectory for a private meeting, a blustering wind of skepticism and mistrust is set into motion. First, Sister James (Amy Adams) informs her superior, Principal Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Meryl Streep), of Flynn’s questionable action. Then, Sister Aloysius observes additional signs that quickly set her into investigative mode. Determined to uncover an unjust relationship between Father and child, Sister Aloysius vies to bring down the man responsible — no matter the consequence.
Based on his Broadway play that ran for more than a year with 525 performances, writer/director John Patrick Shanley takes on the task of transferring his work from stage to celluloid. In doing so, Shanley proves that a great story is great regardless of the medium in which it’s presented. What’s more, considering the play won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and four Tony awards, expectations are high for Doubt to garner additional awards. Given its end-of-year release-date, thematic material, and ensemble acting, Doubt is deservingly prime Oscar bait.
Had Doubt been miscast, the production may have been dismissed as a stagy, undeveloped work. Nevertheless, the foursome of faultless actors elevates the poetic, dramatic, and cinematic ambiance that lies between the lines of the script. Streep, Hoffman, Adams, and Davis are all superb.
Streep shines as the intimidating, intolerant stickler, who despises ballpoint pens, sugar, and secular songs. Hoffman effectively makes his hygiene-obsessed character hard to read. Adams succeeds as the innocent and optimistic neophyte, and Davis is both emotional and effectual as Donald Miller’s mother. To put it simply: above all else, it is the cast that raises Doubt.
The top-drawer acting (while throughout) is prominently featured when the characters are in the Principal’s office. One sequence plants Father Flynn, Sister Aloysius, and Sister James in the office and puts the actors’ talent on display — right through a ringing phone. Another scene, between Father Flynn and Sister Aloysius, becomes a yelling match, a discussion of mortal sins, and a revelation.
Through the heated discussions, the constant suspicion, and even the profound sermons, Doubt plays out as male vs. female game of cat-and-mouse. In a Catholic hierarchy, where men rule, Sister Aloysius avoids the chain of command and attempts to solve the matter herself. After all, “In a world where men run everything, women must take care of things. It takes a cat. Yes it does. Yes it does.”
In fact, when the resolute and shrewd Sister Aloysius asks Sister James to analyze Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s quote, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” Sister James suggests that what F.D.R. meant is that “nothing is wrong; so, don’t get so emotional.” Perhaps this sisterly analysis should have been applied elsewhere. Perhaps not.
Dually, in its ambiguity and bluster, Doubt establishes a powerful bond with any viewer. Don’t just attend a screening and go through the motions. Sit down, listen, and examine. You may leave with something you didn’t have before — artful appreciation.