Philip Seymour Hoffman
John Patrick Shanley
It is 1964 and the winds of change are persistently pushing their way through St Nicholas in the Bronx, New York. The school has just accepted is first and only black pupil, Donald Miller. Isolated by the other pupils, Donald finds his saviour in the charismatic and progressively minded Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman).
But when questions are raised about the true nature of Flynns relationship with the young boy, Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep), Principal of the school, begins a one-woman crusade against Father Flynn.
Sister Aloysius is formidable and terrifying in her execution of power: both children and fellow sisters live in fear of her. All except Father Flynn, and the person who finally brings these two powerhouses into conflict is the idealistic and kind-hearted Sister James (Amy Adams). She brings her tentative suspicions to Sister Aloysius and is subsequently wracked with guilt.
As an impossible situation is slowly unravelled, Sister Aloysius is left with a choice: should she relentlessly pursue her goal with no proof but her own unshakeable moral certainty or should she allow for doubt?
Without question, Doubt is a nuanced, intelligent, thought-provoking, powerful and moving film. It shows how a play can be adapted with cinematic range and have a scope of its own. John Patrick Shanleys dialogue is unequivocably strong and this is particularly demonstrated in the big denouement scenes between the older adult characters: Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Viola Davis as Donalds mother.
Streep and Hoffman set the screen ablaze in their gladiatorial confrontations; there is depth of understanding as well as control in their performances. It is almost hypnotically involving: simply breathtaking to watch. Individually they are compelling characters but together the results are electric. Hoffman has presence, easy charm and unnerving sincerity as Father Flynn, which leaves the audience questioning his innocent/guilt to the very end.
And Streep, always a phenomenon, is here superlative, bringing both compassion and strength in Sister Aloysius. She fights to retain the values and principles she holds dear: from the trivial matters of ballpoint versus fountain pen to the more substantial protection of the elderly members of the order. These are fights she will never win and she is all the more sympathetic for trying.
Viola Davies gives an astonishing performance as Mrs Miller, Donalds mother. She appears only briefly towards the end of the film but her quiet intensity is brilliant. Her portrayal of a mother struggling against the confines of her sex, her race and position in life is both multi-dimensional and incredibly emphatic. There is desperation, confusion and pain in her eyes as she struggles to find a way to protect her son.
Completing this virtuoso quartet is Amy Adams, and she does not disappoint. She has a rare knack for portraying true innocence without appearing stupid, which lifted her break-out role in Enchanted and here is put to more significant use. She is perfectly cast as the young idealistic history teacher who cares deeply for her students.
Her involvement in events changes her way of relating with the world irretrievably. She wears virtually no make-up and has absolutely no guile and this is arresting and refreshing to see.
As playwright, screenwriter and director, Shanley demonstrates his intimate familiarity with the material; so every action or camera move offers yet more insight. The film bristles with themes: change, sexual and racial inequality, the constraints of propriety. There are moments of overtly visual imagery that are briefly distracting but this is only temporary. Overall, Doubt shows no signs of once being a theatrical production other than the power and skill of the dialogue.
For a masterclass in acting and a thought-provoking 104 minutes, be assured: you could do no better than Doubt.