By Harry Forbes
Catholic News Service

December 9, 2008

NEW YORK (CNS) -- The New York and London Pulitzer Prize-winning stage hit "Doubt" (Miramax) makes an equally engrossing movie experience, and one that -- despite the reminder of a dark chapter in the church's recent history -- should resonate with Catholic viewers.

The story is set in 1964 at a fictional Bronx parochial grammar school, St. Nicholas (modeled on the actual St. Anthony, whose exterior is used). Autocratic principal Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep) comes to suspect a popular priest, Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman), of impropriety with 12-year-old Donald, the school's first black student, a sensitive boy whom Father Flynn has treated compassionately.

Sister Aloysius, together with idealistic and kind young teacher Sister James (Amy Adams), sets out to confront him. Sister Aloysius has little proof, but rather a deep-seated conviction that she is right. When Sister James observes Father Flynn putting something in Donald's school locker, and smells alcohol on the altar boy's breath when he returns to the classroom after meeting with the priest, she suspects the worst, and gives Sister Aloysius the ammunition she needs.

Is he guilty or not? It's natural for viewers to side with the feisty, not unlikable Sister Aloysius. But things may not be what they so readily seem, and this is writer-director John Patrick Shanley's point.

Shanley has successfully adapted his drama, deftly recreating the Catholic milieu of the era through the small period details of the classrooms, the principal's office, the rectory, the convent, etc., soon to change after the Second Vatican Council and the reforms and upheaval of the civil rights era.

Shanley, who won an Oscar for the screenplay of "Moonstruck" and has not directed since 1990's "Joe Versus the Volcano," directs here with a sure hand, with telling close-ups and revelatory silences. The pace never flags.

Cinematographer Roger Deakins uses the College of Mount Saint Vincent, founded by the Sisters of Charity (the order of nuns in the film), and other apt locations -- many in the very neighborhood where Shanley grew up and set his story -- to beautiful effect. (Shanley, incidentally, dedicated his stage play to the order.)

There are several subtle touches that illuminate the strongly hierarchal structure of the church in that period, as exemplified in the contrast between the high-spirited, clubby affability of the priests' dining table, and the austere formality of the sisters' meals. And how, when summoned to Sister Aloysius' office, Father Flynn assumes it's his right to appropriate her seat behind the desk, while the two sisters obsequiously serve him tea, even as they are planning their accusatory salvo.

Cherry Jones and Brian F. O'Byrne gave memorable performances on stage, but Streep and Hoffman are equally impressive. After a few seconds of adjusting to Streep's iconic face in her period black cape and bonnet, one completely accepts her in the role, Bronx accent and all, as she deftly balances the formidable side of this old-school nun -- who even decries the use of ballpoint pens -- with flashes of sardonic humor.

Hoffman is equally convincing, as his Father Flynn delivers impassioned sermons from his pulpit or cheerfully bucks some of the old-school sternness to which Sister Aloysius still firmly adheres, and earning her enmity before she suspects him of anything worse. Their scenes together play like a fascinating chess match.

Adams is ideal as the novice teacher. Her character is the only one known to be directly inspired by an actual person: Shanley's first-grade teacher, Sister Margaret McEntee -- a Sister of Charity who began religious life with the name Sister James. She served as a consultant on the film, which is dedicated to her.

Viola Davis is magnificent in her one big scene as the distraught mother of the putative victim who astonishes Sister Aloysius by her singularly unexpected reaction.

Though sexual misconduct is at the heart of the story, it is the balance between doubt which, as Shanley has said, "allows for growth and change" and premature certainty, which only leads to a "dead end" -- that forms the principal thematic subtext. His metaphorical critique is directed not at the church but at those who insist on absolutes in society at large.

The film contains a discreetly handled sexual abuse theme. The USCCB Office for Film & Broadcasting classification is A-III -- adults. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG-13 -- parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.

- - -

Forbes is director of the Office for Film & Broadcasting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. More reviews are available online at


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.