December 12, 2008

Review: Doubt

Sister Aloysius Beauvier likes order, clarity and keeping things just the way they are because that is how she controls the students and her fellow nuns at the St. Nicholas school in the Bronx. Problem is the world is changing around her in ways she has no control over. It's 1964 and the culture as well as the church are shedding the 50s much to Sister Aloysius' dismay. The parish priest (played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman) is trying to make the church friendlier and more nurturing and that brings him in direct conflict with Sister Aloysius (played by Meryl Streep.)

Their conflict is emblematic of the changing culture not only in the church but, between men and women. Women in the church at that time (at least in the movie) wore habits that were restricting in many ways including not giving them the ability to see all that was happening around them -- literally and figuratively. They could only see straight ahead and with no peripheral vision you miss many of the nuances of life. Father Flynn wants to be loved by his flock because he is already respected as a priest. Sister Aloysius has no need to be loved, she wants to be respected, and demands that respect through discipline and order.

When young Sister James (played by Amy Adams) observes an overly friendly and potentially inappropriate relationship between Father Flynn and the school's first black student, Sister Aloysius immediately moves forward to confront the priest. His explanation is sketchy, yet there is no evidence. She only has the "certainty of my convictions."

But nothing is certain and that more than anything is what stands out in the film.

The question of the potential abuse of the boy sometimes gets lost in the power struggle between good and evil between right and wrong between the past and the future in the wordy battles of Hoffman and Streep. But the question, did Father Flynn abuse Donald is never answered leaving that up to the viewer which is a bold and necessary decision.

Viola Davis gives a breathtaking performance as the mother of the potentially abused boy. Class and race issues are thrown into the conflict as Davis' Mrs. Miller implores Streep's sister Aloyisus to help her son get through the school year so that he can have a future. She unhesitatingly chooses Father Flynn and what he might be doing to her son over the persistent beatings he receives from his father. In that one scene, Mrs. Miller leaves Sister Aloyisus shaken to her core.

The thing about Doubt as a film is that because it is so focused on the words you really need to concentrate to get everything. It is the type of movie that I enjoyed better on my second viewing because I was able to fill in some of the pieces that I missed the first time out. Streep is great as always as Sister Aloyisus, but I was disappointed with Phillip Seymour Hoffman. Amy Adams again proves that she can hold her own, but her part, though pivotal, is small. It will leave you thinking, talking and questioning which is what I loved about it.

Check out the trailer: