Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Doubt (***1/2)

Written for the Screen and Directed by John Patrick Shanley


There are few acting talents in American cinema as titanic as either Meryl Streep or Philip Seymour Hoffman, so to have the two going toe-to-toe within Doubt is a cinephile's dream. The film was written and directed by John Patrick Shanley, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of Moonstruck. He hadn't actually directed a motion picture, though, since his underwhelming debut Joe Versus The Volcano, but this time around he has a more compelling premise and a much more compelling cast to guide his filmmaking.

The film is based on a Tony and Pulitzer Prize-winning play, which was also written by Shanley. The story involves a Catholic church and school in Brooklyn around 1964. It had been only a year since President Kennedy's assassination, and the country was quickly progressing away from its stingy, puritanical ways and barrelling toward a time of free love and expression. The church is going through a change as well, with their new lovable, and free-thinking pastor, Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) who preaches with authority, but also with enthusiasm, and a liveliness which captures the attention of the town and particularly the young boys at the school who see him as a mentor.

The school is run, though, with an iron fist by Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep), the head nun and principal of the school. Her fellow nun and ingenue Sister James (Amy Adams) is as happy with Father Flynn's easygoing style as Aloysius is suspicious. Aloysius is old school in the purest definition of the phrase, she hates the song 'Frosty the Snowman' because it preaches the pagan belief in magic, and can't stand ballpoint pens because they disrupt proper penmanship. She wants nothing to do with the open-minded Father Flynn, and distrusts his motives as his empathy attracts as many fans as her chilliness has brought enemies.

Her suspicions in Father Flynn runs wild when she is approached by Sister James. She tells Aloysius that Flynn had taken a young, black boy named Donald Miller (Joseph Foster) to the rectory and when Donald returned he had alcohol on his breath and acted strangely. Sister James knows that Donald's actions are suspicious but refuses to accept her worst suspicions, while Aloysius uses the minor accusation to begin her calculated destruction of the charming man. She even goes as far as to contact Donald's mother, Mrs. Miller (Viola Davis), but despite her persistence, she is unable to find solid evidence or a specific accusation.

The film is truly an actor's piece, with performances from Streep, Adams, Hoffman, and Davis that create characters with such bravura that the film's muddled themes are completely overshadowed. Sure, Shanley still has things to learn about film directing--for instance, how about a little subtlety, visually or thematically? The biggest issues stage-to-screen adaptations have are that there is a level of melodrama necessary in theatre that is hackneyed in film. Frost/Nixon was a film that made the transition perfectly, where Doubt uses it's veteran actors to pull off the brazen shouting matches with austerity.

Meryl Streep is possibly the greatest actress of all-time, which means all of her performances are measured on an unbelievable scale of expectation, and Sister Aloysius is not Karen Silkwood from Silkwood, is not Sophie Zawistowski from Sophie's Choice, and quite frankly, not Miranda Priestly from The Devil Wears Prada. What it is, though, is a solid performance from the most professional, talented, and mercurial actresses in Hollywood. She will get her fifteenth Oscar nomination for this role, and its a testament to her career that even her on her B game is still some of the best stuff of the year.

Most of the fire and ice throughout the picture comes from the secondary characters. Hoffman, living proof that character actors can be leading men if they're talented enough, performs a wonderful balancing act of witty charm and hidden irresponsibility. Amy Adams, an actress always undermined because of her illustrious beauty, is wonderful at portraying the back-and-forth suspicion the audience is mirroring most of the time. Viola Davis, her work constricted mostly to a single scene, is a powder keg of emotion. Streep is merely invisible when Davis is on the screen, and that is seriously saying something.

The film begins with an engrossing sermon by Father Flynn about the power of doubt. Various characters throughout the film are stricken with doubt; some feel they can overcome it, and some accept it as fact. I liked the way this movie allowed its characters to flow through their emotions, and didn't manipulate their actions or emotions by plot contrivance. Shanley cares a lot about these characters, which may explain his stunted visual growth (what's with all the Dutch angles?), but his pure love for them allows the actor's to live in the skin and perform beautifully.

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