Friday, December 12, 2008

Review - Doubt

My latest review for NBR - shorter than usual, this time. Over on Playgoer, Garrett was commenting on how many more negative reviews he was seeing of the movie and specifically the character of Sister Aloysius, although few reviews of the play expressed that opinion. Is it Streep's portrayal? To me, it was sympathetic, or at least ambivalent in its sympathies. My personal theory is that film audiences are much more used to seeing a story about certainties, so that when a story is presented in which who is actually right and wrong remains in doubt, they have to assume a strong opinion one way or the other by the writer/director. Since Meryl Streep's character seems meaner, she must be wrong. Right? Wrong...

Anyway, here's my review:

“Certainty is just an emotion,” as Father Brendan Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) reminds Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep). And emotions can betray us. In John Patrick Shanley’s movie, Doubt, which he has adapted from his own Broadway play, everything is in doubt, even Hoffman’s statement. Is it a true insight, or a self-serving deflection of Sister Aloysius’ righteous anger?

Shanley deliberately leaves the answer open, as he poses a series of increasingly difficult questions about morality and religion throughout his idea rich film. He is aided on the journey by a trio of outstanding performances. Hoffman and Streep have shown again and again that they are two of the finest actors ever to be filmed. So the surprise here is Amy Adams as Sister Jenny, a young nun. Her intent eyes, filled with expression, peek out from her habit, and those eyes become a stand-in for the audience.

Shanley returned back to the neighborhood of his childhood in order to shoot the film. It is dedicated to the original Sister Jenny (she also served as a consultant to the film), and everything in the film feels authentic. The conflicts posed never condescend to the church, though they do pose tough questions about faith and Catholic practice. It is easy to see Shanley’s affection for the Catholic school that he grew up in even as he challenges it.

As a director, Shanley mostly stands back and lets his actors and his own words take charge. He does find a few visual themes, such as the swirling leaves in autumn which reflect the bits of paper in the wind Father Flynn speaks of in a sermon about gossip. But the visual power of the film is not in its sweep, but in its details. The faces of Streep, Hoffman, and Adams close up add a deeply emotional element to the intellectual brew.

It is a film worth seeing and worth pondering. Having just gone through a political season, during which the candidates were expected to express strong opinions, filled with certainty, it is good to have a movie which reminds us of the pains and the benefits of doubt.

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