Borrowed Emotionalism Stands in for Acting
By Steffen Silvis
March 5, 2009
Doubt is a minor film whose accolades only reveal how barren American cinema is of serious matter. John Patrick Shanley's play has been an unqualified success on the world stage, and it wouldn't be uncharitable to suggest that a piece focusing on suspected child sexual abuse by a Catholic priest couldn't have arrived at a more opportune time, considering the vagaries of present day priestcraft.
Doubt is a competent parlor piece, a small one-act play wholly dependent upon whatever energy its cast of four can generate among themselves. The film version, directed rather clumsily by the playwright, manages to expose how thin the original play is. By attempting to open the story up, and by overpopulating it with parents, schoolchildren, janitors, cooks, cats and a domino set of nuns, Shanley discards the very element that aided his play: intimacy.
The lean meat of the story remains. The action is set in a Bronx neighborhood in 1964 - a time when, obviously, upheaval was in the air. It's been a year since the assassination of John F. Kennedy, though the full impact of Vietnam, the civil rights struggle and their attending riots are still a few years away. For Catholics, there's the added nervousness surrounding the dictates slowly dripping out of the Second Vatican Council, which will affect Catholicism no less profoundly than the Protestant Reformation.
The principal antagonists of Doubt are themselves representatives of the Catholic world at this very crisis point. Sister Aloysius, of the Sisters of Charity, is the principal of the local Catholic school and a staunch conservative. She will not welcome the Second Vatican's conclusions, as it's hard enough for her to admit ballpoint pens into the classroom. She is, after all, someone who would welcome the banning of "Frosty the Snowman," as the song supports wizardry.
Her opposite is Father Flynn, an avuncular priest who enjoys his whiskey and cigarettes. He would like to see more inclusiveness in the church and less of a strict divide between clergy and laity - something that sends shivers down Sister Aloysius' spine.
When the school's first black student, a boy named Donald, arrives, Father Flynn takes him under his wing. But Donald subsequently begins to exhibit signs of fear and depression. His teacher, the young, otherworldly Sister James, will notice things that she can't quite explain, such as the smell of alcohol on Donald's breath after returning from visiting Flynn, and then seeing Flynn place one of the boy's T-shirts in his locker.
When Sister James reveals what she's seen to Sister Aloysius, the senior nun immediately suspects the worst. The play's drama centers on the collision between the suspicious, disciplinarian nun and the suspect priest, though doubts persist. Certainly, Flynn never confesses to any of the crimes Sister Aloysius accuses him of, nor has she any evidence that solidly implicates him. Uncertainty reigns, though the senior nun's faith in Flynn's flaws overrules any attempt at objectivity.
Undoubtedly, Doubt's greatest strength is leaving the whole story open-ended. It's been said that the play's second act is essentially the private discussions audience members would have among themselves, as to whether Flynn is guilty or Aloysius is mad. Another strength is in the well-roundedness of the two rivals. As warm and attractive as Flynn is, he obviously protests too much in the face of Sister Aloysius' allegations, leaving one wondering what he's hiding.
Aloysius, the bane of all schoolchildren, is, nonetheless, a woman of fine qualities. She is, perhaps, driven by a sense of outrage that women within the church feel being at the mercy of the often-shallow men above them - much in Shanley's dialogue hints at this being a motivating factor. But she's also a woman dedicated to protecting children. It's one thing for her to slap young heads in an attempt to provide guidance, quite another for a priest to offer affection that can only corrupt.
Yet the airless interior of a creaking urban Catholic school that's needed to sustain this story has been lost, as has the tension between the actors. What we get in Shanley's sophomore film (complete with vertiginous camera angles, which can be seen both as a naive director testing himself and a lazy screenwriter's effortful attempt to communicate imbalance) is a festival of narcissism. His actors, no strangers to the occasional bout of self-indulgence, only manage to furiously act at each other.
Meryl Streep's Sister Aloysius is ham dressed as Lenten fare. Every pursing of her lips and raised eyebrow is a calculated strategy for creating whatever mask she thinks she needs for the moment. Streep is good at finding her character's humor, but her serious moments strike one as so much rented emotionalism. Philip Seymour Hoffman's Flynn is just as inauthentic, leaving us with the image of two major actors railing at each other like amateur barnstormers, who know how to raise the roof, but not the material.
Amy Adams, a delightful actor, plays away in the cracks left after Streep and Hoffman's meal of scenery, though her Sister James never manages to be more than a convenient plot device. However, Viola Davis, as the mother of the boy at the center of the story, is a revelation. While Streep grimaces and gestures like a Milan traffic cop, Davis quietly, and with great dignity, counters these diva tactics with the creation of a real, soulful human being. There is no doubt that she's the actor who finally steals this inconsequential show.
Steffen Silvis can be reached at Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
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