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Review: Doubt

Nun story
By CAROLYN CLAY  |  January 12, 2009
2.5 2.5 Stars

VIDEO: The trailer for Doubt

Doubt | Written and Directed by John Patrick Shanley | with Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, and Viola Davis | Miramax | 104 minutes
The Pulitzer-winning play was called Doubt, a parable. Parables, however, work better in sermons than on celluloid. So, no surprise, even with playwright John Patrick Shanley as both screenwriter and director, the film version of Doubt, acted to an Oscar-buzz-generating fare-thee-well, seems less a metaphor for the virtues of uncertainty than a loving period piece centered on the suspicion of child molestation by Catholic clergy in the 1960s. Of course, there are those who will tell you there wasn't much doubt in the original Doubt, in which Cherry Jones's stooped Bronx giantess of a principal, Sister Aloysius, hounded Brian F. O'Byrne's humane, arguably hedonistic Father Flynn from the pulpit of St. Nicholas parish even as the Church thawed in the shadow of Vatican II. But what uncertainty there was Shanley — opening up his church-school juggernaut less with a battering ram than with a can opener — struggles to retain.

Shanley did not, after all, pen a whistle-blowing docudrama in the manner of Michael Murphy's Sin: A Cardinal Deposed. As he explains in the preface to the printed play, he intends, in our "culture of extreme advocacy, of confrontation, of judgment," an encomium to the oft-isolating bravery of the title commodity. What he gets, in the film, are a couple of masterful character studies and a power struggle in which no one loses but the winners are irreparably singed.

Does it help the film that he replaces the play's pointed discussion of parable — the favored preaching tool of Father Flynn — with heavy-handedly metaphorical meteorology including cataclysmic rain, rampaging autumn leaves, and nun-flattening winds of change? No. Neither does it contribute to the intended ambiguity to introduce us, however peripherally, to Donald Muller, the lone black recruit to Sister Aloysius's boot camp, over whose "well-being" the tooth-and-nail between rigid old-liner Aloysius and the warmer-hearted if clerically sexist Flynn is allegedly fought.

But Oscar-winning screenwriter Shanley, whose only previous film-directorial outing was the 1990 flop Joe Versus the Volcano, preserves the basic integrity of his play (most of the dialogue of which transfers verbatim). And though it's hard to forgive him for bypassing Jones, who probably won him half his Pulitzer, the thespian chops on view here are sharp. C'mon, it's Meryl Streep deploying an accent! And whether you buy into the perplexity regarding Father Flynn's "infringements" past or present, there's no doubt that both Streep and Hoffman present complex, flawed characters, he as ruddy if offputting as the near-bloody beef being consumed by cigarette-sucking priests in one over-the-top scene, she as parched as the face the self-righteous old ascetic denies moisturizer.

Whoever is the subject of the witch hunt kicked off by a minor physical incident and fueled by Aloysius's dislike of the unconventional young priest whose sins include a sweet tooth and tolerance for such "heresies" as "Frosty the Snowman," she is its real focus. Streep makes the character's journey toward near-irrational zealotry extraordinarily clear, as Sister Aloysius, thwarted by her gender and enraged by a thrown gauntlet or two, is further wedged into a corner she needs to believe is blessed territory.

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