Meryl Streep as Sister Aloysius Beauvier
Philip Seymour Hoffman as Father Brendan Flynn
Amy Adams as Sister James
Viola Davis as Mrs. Miller
Alice Drummond as Sister Veronica
Audrie J. Neenan as Sister Raymond
Susan Blommaert as Mrs. Carson
Carrie Preston as Christine Hurley
John Costelloe as Warren Hurley
Lloyd Clay Brown as Jimmy Hurley
Joseph Foster as Donald Muller
Bridget Megan Clark as Noreen Horan
Michael Roukis as William London
Haklar Dezso as Zither Player
Frank Shanley as Kevin
Directed by John Patrick Shanley
Riveting and unforgettable, this intense drama really pulls you in and holds you with a terrific script and four unforgettable Oscar-worthy performances.
In 1964, life at the Bronx Catholic School St. Nicholas is disrupted when the strict principle Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep) includes the church priest Father Flynn (Philip Seymouf Hoffman) of an impropriety with the school’s only black student and altar boy, Donald Miller, when the ambitious young nun Sister James (Amy Adams) thinks she sees something that backs up Aloysius’ own suspicions.
The story behind John Patrick Shanley’s return to filmmaking after nearly 18 years is an amazing one, especially the fact that it came out of him writing and staging an off-Broadway play that ultimately won many awards once it came to Broadway. Unlike the recent “Frost/Nixon,” the entire cast of the play has been replaced for the film version, but Shanley has assembled a new foursome of talented actors to tell the same story, three whom have already proven their Oscar-caliber mettle, and the third a terrific actress who’s long been deserving of notice.
One might not think that a four-handed character drama based in a Catholic School might not hold much interest, but anyone that saw the stirring 2006 documentary “Deliver Us From Evil” knows how serious an issue sexual molestation is between priests and altar boys, and how it can leave serious emotional scars. Shanley’s film deals with this subject from another angle, from those suspecting foul play but not having enough proof, and it’s an interesting character study that translates better to the screen than one might expect.
Set during the period following John F. Kennedy’s assassination, we arrive at the St. Nicholas Church and School as Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Father Flynn is giving a rousing sermon about “doubt,” and this is where we first meet Meryl Streep’s Sister Aloysius, the school principal. Behind her back, Aloysius is called “the dragon” because she’s a strict disciplinarian, who doesn’t put up with anything from anybody, always keeping her eye on every student and faculty member. One teacher, a young nun named Sister James (Amy Adams) is trying hard to live up to Aloysius’ lofty standards though she doesn’t necessarily agree to them, but she quickly realizes her pleasant and friendly approach doesn’t work at keeping her students in line. Aloysius is particularly concerned with a student and Father Flynn’s altar boy Donald Miller, the only black student at the school, and Aloysius tells Sister James to keep an eye on him. When the boy is called by Father Flynn to the rectory, the young nun thinks she can earn points with Aloysius by sharing this information, though it gives Aloysius a chance to act on her suspicions of Flynn’s improprieties and she stages an inquisition to find out the truth.
There’s something really humorous about how Streep plays the character, particularly her nasal accent and how she spits out every word of Shanley’s dialogue. It’s another strong performance from the actress that’s sadly overshadowed by having seen her in far too many bad movies this year. Still, it’s another great character for her, cut from similar cloth as Imelda Staunton’s Dolores Umbridge from the last “Harry Potter,” but a lot scarier because she doesn’t even attempt to be nice.
Philip Seymour Hoffman is excellent as Father Flynn, coming across as pompously pious on the altar, but like a generally caring man who listens to the boys and tries to help them, the exact opposite of the steely school principal. It’s hard to imagine he could ever do something wrong, which may be why he’s insulted and offended by Sister Aloysius’ accusations, but as he says in a later sermon: once gossip is out there, it’s hard to reign it back in and the younger nun doesn’t know whether to believe Aloysius’ accusations of kindly Father Flynn’s story.
One would rightfully suspect that a film driven by dialogue and the interaction of three characters could get boring, but that’s not the case, as the story’s momentum comes from the verbal fireworks, especially in a number of intense scenes between Hoffman and Streep, where she grills him about his relationship with Donald. Adams is relatively tame compared to them, but if you liked her emotional performance in “Junebug,” this is a similarly rounded performance. It’s hard to deny that Streep, Hoffman and Adams bring out the best in each other, but in just one scene, Viola Davis grabs your attention and leaves you shaken as Donald’s mother, who has her own concerns about the boy’s relationship with Father Flynn. There’s a lot more going on at Donald Miller’s home and Mrs. Miller just wants him to get through the school year to be able to go to college. Her attitude about what might be going on between her son and Father Flynn is shocking, especially compared to Aloysius’ own concerns.
Some of the scenes get a bit overblown with the amount of heavy drama, but it’s all handled well, leading to a number of truly heart-breaking moments, especially the final epilogue scene where we finally see cracks start to form in Aloysius’ steely exterior for the first time.
For the most part, Shanley has done a good job expanding a relatively simple one-act play into something set more in the real world. Small things like showing the contrast between the nun’s conservative dinner compared to the priest’s rowdier meals makes all the difference in setting the tone for the later confrontation. Overall, the movie looks great due to the talented eye of Roger Deakins who turns the story’s simple setting into an expansive stage for the drama, and his visuals greatly amplify the quality of the filmmaking, ever shot looking like a postcard. Deakins continues to be the best in the business, as well as the most underrated cinematographer working today, but once again, he shows that he makes any film even better.
The Bottom Line:
There’s no doubt that Shanley’s stageplay really works as a film, and it’s hard to imagine it could have had quite the same impact on stage as it does with the cast Shanley has assembled for the screen version.
Doubt is now playing in select cities and opens wide on Christmas Day.