Friday, January 23, 2009

Doubt **1/2

Director: John Patrick Shanley
Cast: Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Viola Davis

Perhaps not all theater was meant to be adapted into cinema. Even if the notion that both mediums share a fraternal link has existed since movies began, the truth is that they are completely different experiences and the same screenplay performed in each of the mediums will create a distinct effect in the audience.
"Doubt" probably plays better on the stage, with its small cast limited to a reduced space and the omnipresence of the audience whose eyes add weight to the characters' burdens.
As a movie it lacks a certain punch and urgency which ultimately affects its entire purpose.
Meryl Streep plays Sister Aloysius Beauvier, a nun serving as principal for a Catholic school in 1964 Bronx. Conservative in every aspect she commands respect and fear from the students and her fellow nuns including the naive Sister James (Adams).
Intent on maintaining a certain order she sets her eyes on Father Flynn (Hoffman) a revolutionary priest who people like even if he suggests they use a "secular" song for the school's Christmas pageant.
After alerting Sister James to watch out for the priest, she receives notice that Father Flynn has had a private meeting with Donald Miller (Joseph Foster), the only African American student in the school who has become victim to pranks and isolation, convinced that the priest molested the child Sister Aloysius goes on a campaign to destroy him.
Based on his own play Shanley's adaptation offers some moral, spiritual and ethical questions that make for a fascinating piece. "Doubt can be a bond as powerful and sustaining as certainty" affirms Father Flynn during one of his sermons and after a too obvious shot of Sister Aloysius and Sister James, Shanley makes it obvious that this is entirely an actor's showcase.
Adams gives an effective portrayal of innocence; she suggests maliciousness when interacting with Sister Aloysius, but ends up being a naive girl torn apart between right, wrong and her commitment to her profession.
Davis has two scenes as David's mother Mrs. Miller, but in just one makes an absolutely indelible impression; as she walks with Sister Aloysius listening to what might be happening to her son she walks through a whole life, Davis' face contains the entire history of this woman who might be the only character in the film who really knows who she is.
Hoffman has the face to pull off both a pedophile and a saint and does so portraying Father Flynn like a man who can only give love, in whatever way the audience chooses to conceive it.
His character could've ended up being a villain or a martyr and Hoffman avoids both making his character completely human.
The film is ambiguous about what really happened and watching Hoffman you have to become judge and decide for yourself.
Then there's Streep who makes sure she commands all the attention as Sister Aloysius, the brilliant actress seems to have trouble getting into character; known for her subtle immersion into her roles, during her first scenes in the film she still seems to be adjusting to the character.
She twitches, purses her lips and provides more affecting mannerisms than a mime but just as you're about to condemn the actress for showing the tactics of her craft you realize that this has been Sister Aloysius all along.
Like a diva, she is so sure about her ability to cause fear, her self imposed superiority and her overall power that she lets us know she can do whatever she wants to do with it.
Those who know people raised in Catholic schools will recognize Sister Aloysius in stories they've heard or people they know.
If she wants to offer grandiose displays of histrionics who among her congregation will dare to tell her she's wrong? Streep finds a certain vulnerability in Sister Aloysius because more than the other characters she is the one with the crisis of faith, more precisely who or what to have faith in.
Should it be her pride, her position, her God or her need to do good even if she must hurt others?
She proclaims herself as the one to "outshine the fox in cleverness", but Streep knows better than to reduce this woman to a psychopath, a woman with penis envy looking for gender equality or a villain.
It's a shame then that Shanley doesn't seem to know his characters the way his ensemble does. While it seems he's putting his faith in them, his directorial skills prove otherwise as he uses every trick in the book to convey ideas and emotions.
He directs with the insecure eagerness of someone who landed a movie star for the high school theater production.
Big scenes are done with tilted Hitchcokian angles and moments of revelation are accompanied by storms and wind.
While it's understandable that the director would want to highlight dramatic moments, truth is all along you feel almost as if Shanley was hovering above the screen with little puppet strings, then running off to bang the metal for the thunder effects, then run again once more to play the wicked organ music and so on.
For a subject which deals so much with our own power to choose, and a last scene that relies heavily on this, it's a shame that for his film Shanley has no belief in free will.


Michael Parsons said...

I wached this last night and I need to write up my review. However after reading this I may just link to yours!
All the talk about why was Amy Adams nominated is silly. I think she deserves her nomination as she had a difficult task of making Sister James innocent but not stupid. The 'doubt' in her was the most affective.
Davis walked away with the movie.

Mark said...

I actually thought PSH gave the best performance of the bunch. He pulled off the moral complexity of that character masterfully. The rest of the cast was all Oscar-worthy, as well.
I also thought Shanley's script was easily among the best of the year.