30 September 2016 | Screen_Blitz
Though nothing provocative, this film provides a powerful examination on it's touchy subject matter
There's a thought-provoking message to be handed from this film, and the message is doubt is a more powerful weapon than certainty in the moral code; a message that director John Patrick Shanely incorporates well in this religiously-charged drama based on his award-winning play. Though the play itself is not necessarily based on historical events, it certainly does mirror some real-life circumstances that have occurred in the Catholic Church for many, many decades, but only to have remained stray from the public eye for many years before finally being uncovered by the news media in the early 2000s. With cases of child molestrations occurring by Catholic priests throughout the last century, it is not to easy to deny that this film pervades with subject matter that will surely hit close to home for some, especially as these sorts of events have hit hard to challenge the faith of many born-again Christians; and this film paints a smart, if somewhat flawed picture of a moment that sets off the ignition of doubt. Set in 1964 in Bronx, New York, this film follows a story of Sister Aloysius Beavier (played by Meryl Streep), an iron-fisted principal of the Saint Nicholas Catholic School who has a wide eye for finding moral sin around every corner and believes in her fearful disciplinary style of wash the school free of sinful behavior. Father Flynn (played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman) is an assistant of the school and while serving as the priest of the local Catholic Church. When the school enrolls their first African- American student Donald Miller (played by Joseph Foster), Father Flynn takes special interest in the boy which leads to newcomer Sister James (played by Amy Adams) sharing suspicion with Sister Aloysius that Flynn has engaged in an improper relationship. In desperation to uncover the truth, Sister Aloysius engages in a battle of wills against Flynn that threatens the very foundation of the Catholic school.
Translating a stage play into an on screen outlet is always a daunting task, and without the direction can lead to major, if not massive cinematic disappointment. Fortunately, John Patrick Shanely hands in the ingredients to deliver a film that though struggles in the narrative department, manages to be smart and mature in a compelling way. After spending some quality time introducing the characters and getting them settled in, the film presents us with a short scene between Father Flynn and the young boy Donald Miller which soon sets off the plot in a desperate pursuit to crack the truth whether this Catholic priest is just a man trying to protect the boy from possible racial prejudice (keep in mind that this takes place during the Civil Rights era) or simply trying to help the lad fit in, or the horrifying pedophile Aloysius suspects he is. As Phillip Seymour Hoffman's character develops, he grows likable to the point you hope that Sister Aloysius's suspicion is just false alarm. But as the story dives deeper into a Father Flynn's past, you begin to develop the feeling that maybe this man is not so innocent as he appears. From there on, the story keeps you guessing on why this man is taking so crucial interest in this new kid and whether or not he has committed the "ultimate sin". While the story more than not tends to feel shallow in it's emotional core and sometimes even a little sluggish, the biggest payoffs is the performances by Meryl Streep as Sister Aloysius. For an actress with a higher number of Oscar nominations under her belt, Streep plays her role with great posture and maturity, and the cinematic talent she's brought over the years definitely shines through. Amy Adams, playing the slightly optimistic teacher, also remains decent as ever for the fine actress she is. Sharing only a short amount of screen time is Viola Davis as the boy's mother who leads one good emotional moment where Donald's past is firmly revealed. Finally, there is Phillip Seymour Hoffman who delivers a strong sense of liveliness and maturity in his role, and his scenes with Meryl Streep are likely to leave you debating of who stands out above the other. They're both equally that good.
Doubt is nothing necessarily provocative or surprising, but it shows John Patrick Shanely at his directorial efforts on bringing this stage play adaptation to life, and feature some amazing performances by a powerfully ingenious cast. Though the film ends on a rather dry note that is likely to trigger the feeling of "what, that's it?" in some viewers, the majority of this film remains a genuine artwork, but not without it's flaws.