Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman): Where is your compassion?
Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep): Nowhere you can get at it.
At a glance:
Doubt features some excellent starring and supporting performances by Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, and Viola Davis, but in the end, it is done in by overly illogical dramatics and a lack of desire to confront real issues
In a Catholic school of 1964, Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep) becomes convinced that Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is behaving ‘incorrectly’ with the school’s first black student. She takes it upon herself to stop him. Gray areas are everywhere in this tale of doubt and accusations. Is Flynn what he seems to be? And is Sister Aloysius a hard-nosed disciplinarian or an abuser herself? A powerful scene featuring a series of heated confrontations between two prodigious actors – Hoffman and Streep – tries to answer this question, but instead there are more gray areas. Counterpoint to all this is the sweet naivete of Sister James (Amy Adams). Doubt is a story about the general abuse of power, but it’s also a study of the patriarchal Catholic church. The nuns eat sparse meals in silence, accompanied by glasses of milk. (Off-camera, they also have to do their own housekeeping and cooking). The priests, meanwhile, drink and smoke while dining in lavish comfort, with all of their cooking and domestic chores handled by hired support staff.
The screenplay by writer/director John Patrick Shanley (adapted from his stage play) functions beautifully until the final 1/3, when the implausibility of the situations fail it. Poor Viola Davis has the thankless role of suggesting that her son be allowed to be abused by the priest – better that than be killed by his father. Amazingly, Davis makes this ridiculous argument work, and for that, she has received an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress (as has Amy Adams). Meryl Streep received a Best Actress nomination, and she is great, although at times I found her reactions flippant (especially at the end of the Davis scene). Some of these overtly illogical dramatic moments tend to play better from the stage.
In the end, Doubt strives to be thought-provoking, but it’s difficult to provoke thought when you are more concerned with being inoffensive and confusing for the sake of intrigue itself.
One thing I can confirm from personal experience: Doubt faithfully recreates a New York Catholic school/church of the 1960s.
Other reviewers said:
"The cast is so good that it's possible to forgive that the material they're performing isn't as thought provoking as it could have been."
- Dan Lybarger (eFilmCritic.com)
"An uneven, unfulfilling film, that hosts two or three really good dramatic scenes."
- Ross Anthony (Hollywood Report Card)