Review: Doubt

Doubt director and writer John Patrick Shanley can be forgiven for framing his movie inside the insular world of a Catholic parish in the Bronx in 1964. Indeed, it is hard to imagine a better setting for this movie. Catholicism of course has little room for doubt or uncertainty. Its priests and sisters are expected to have a finely honed sense for the presence of sin. Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep) is the principle of a parochial school in the parish. From her long experience among the unwashed and sinful masses, she can sense a fire long before there is any combustion. For a Sister of Charity she has few things charitable to say about the students she oversees. It seems that without her constant vigilance all her pupils are doomed to lapse further into a life of sin. She rules the school through fear and intimidation to such an extent that even her fellow sisters are cowed and silent in her presence. She makes no apologies for her methods and cannot conceive of any other way of governing.

Meanwhile over in the rectory Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is hard at work trying to become a more liberal and expansive priest. He is full of enthusiasm for Vatican II and wants to be known as a warm and accessible priest. This naturally raises Sister Aloysius’s suspicions. What does it mean when the school’s only African American student is called into a private conference with Father Flynn and he returns smelling of communion wine? For Sister Aloysius, this means something sinful and unnatural must have been going on. She plunges headfirst into these dubious moral waters, determined to make Father Flynn accountable for his behavior. After all, she has spent a career witnessing it among her pupils. Confirmation of her suspicions is rather beside the point. She must bring a stop to whatever immorality is occurring, no matter what the cost.

Streep and Hoffman provide fine performances as you might expect. What you do not expect is that Amy Adams (who plays Sister James) will rise to their level and by many measures give the finest performance in the movie. Sister James is deeply troubled because the boy is in her class. She becomes anguished and feels pulled both ways by Father Flynn and Sister Aloysius. Her inability to resolve her feelings, which are amplified by both the stakes and the clarity of Catholic theology, nearly destroys her. Adams gets far less camera time than either Streep or Hoffman but in many ways her performance is the most memorable. Is Father Flynn a child molester? Are Sister Aloysius’s suspicions unjustified? The film magnificently explores the issue of reasonable doubt in a climate where none is permitted, and the havoc the dichotomy can cause within such an insular community.

If you enjoy fine character driven and human stories then without a “doubt” you should see Doubt. If you are a Catholic or ex-Catholic, you also might enjoy inhabiting again the world of the American Catholic Church in 1964, which is flawlessly rendered. As a result a number of those Catholic hymns that I had thought I had purged from my brain are now running around in my mind again, along with long forgotten memories of my own time as an altar boy.

I spent nine years in parochial schools. We had our own Sister Aloysius, so I can attest that Meryl Streep’s portrayal as school principle is dead on for the period. We had our Irish priest too, whom we secretly suspected of drinking too much communion wine. Consequently, I found the plot entirely plausible. The Catholic Church, like many moral institutions can run but not hide from the moral squishiness and ambiguity of life. Doubt captures it brilliantly.

3.4 on my 4.0 scale.

P.S. The metaphor of the windows in Sister Aloysius’s offices so often being unexpectedly open is, I am sure, quite intentional.

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