...an acting master class.


An Illusion Review by Joan Ellis

            “Doubt” unfolds in 1964 before priesthood scandals became a household phrase. Although the liberalizing effects of Vatican II resonate in this movie adapted by John Patrick Shanley from his Broadway play, the movie merely skates along the surface of the effects of a changing world on the Catholic Church. Shanley has narrowed his tale to two human beings, one open, one rigid – the new church and the old. 

            The story is rooted in the cloud of suspicion that lies between Father Flynn (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) and Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep). As principal of St. Nicholas Catholic grade school, Sister Aloysius is the archetypical example of certitude. There are no grays in her world. Every unfortunate student sent to her office receives some variation of her blunt, unequivocal criticism. Encouragement is not part of her vocabulary and she can silence a room with a glance. 

            So rigid is this Catholic nun, so unyielding, that we begin to ask ourselves what in her background might have made her so uncompromising. We learn from Mr. Shanley only that she was once married. That’s all. As a reviewer, I am at a loss to understand whether Meryl Streep plays over the top or whether the part simply demands it. It is the first time I have not been awed by Streep’s ability to inhabit a part. Sister Aloysius seems a caricature of infallibility. 

            Everything else in this fine movie is wonderfully wrapped in the ambivalence and doubt of the title. Fledging nun Sister James (Amy Adams) delivers a small seed of rumor about Father Flynn (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) to the school principal, Sister Aloysius. Has the Father had an improper relationship with altar boy Donald Miller? Certain she is right, Sister Aloysius virtually stalks her superior in search of proof. 

            When the Sister summons Father Flynn to her office to confront him, Father Flynn is stunned and outraged. Sensing the boy’s need for mentoring, Father Flynn had responded to the school’s first black student with kindness and a hug. The great strength of the story is Shanley’s consistent refusal to let the audience surface from its own well of doubt. Facing his accuser, Father Flynn shouts, “You haven’t the slightest proof!” “I have only my certainty,” Sister Aloysius replies. Watch especially for Father Flynn’s searing explanation of the nature of gossip. He tries to eviscerate a body of lies in a rigidly certain world. 

            While the movie is primarily a two character play between two of our finest actors, it is further enhanced by a striking performance by Viola Davis as Donald’s protective mother, Mrs. Miller. When she and Sister Aloysius walk the courtyard in confrontation, the theater goes as silent as a tomb while the two women strike like vipers, one in accusing certitude, one in the flexibility essential to a mother trying to protect her son from the world that is buffeting him. It is an acting master class.


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