Movie review: 'Doubt'

Friday, December 12, 2008


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POLITE APPLAUSE Doubt: Drama. Starring Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams. Directed by John Patrick Shanley. (PG-13. 104 minutes. At Century 9.)

"Doubt" is a commendable rendering of John Patrick Shanley's Pulitzer Prize-winning drama. That it's faithful to its source should come as no surprise - Shanley directed the film and wrote the screenplay - and the first-rate cast ensures that, if anybody in the future wants to see what "Doubt" was like in its own time, the movie will stand as an unusually good record.

Are you waiting now for the "but," for the qualification, for the slight hedging of bets? Maybe there just isn't one, at least not one based on anything tangibly wrong with the movie itself. Shanley, who previously directed the fanciful "Joe Versus the Volcano," has no difficulty translating his play into film. His achievement here goes well beyond finding ways to "open up" scenes by shooting them outside. Shanley has an intuitive sense of finding the revealing angle, and he knows how to let the psychological moment determine when to cut and what to show.

Likewise, his dialogue is just as crisp, the scene writing just as brilliant and the overall situation just as compelling onscreen as onstage. Yet here's the problem - no, not a problem, just a faint reservation: There seems to be something about the story itself that's better suited to the stage than the screen.

"Doubt" embraces ambiguity. It turns on an event that may or may not have happened - did a priest molest a 12-year-old boy? - and the issue is never completely resolved. Onstage, the lack of 100 percent certainty is a virtue, an incitement to further speculation and thought. But film, which has a way of literalizing everything it surveys, is less forgiving of ambiguity. A movie can go anywhere, so why not go into that room, or go back in time? Why not show us someone's thoughts?

The result is that what was the chief virtue of the play becomes, not a detriment, but no longer a virtue. Just by changing medium, through no fault of anyone concerned, "Doubt" goes from something close to great to something merely very good.

But very good is still very good, and making a movie allows Shanley to re-create the setting for his film, the Bronx in 1964. As in the play, the characters speak with a type of New York accent that almost no longer exists but that thrived 45 years ago. Today, Italian American New York accents (think Robert De Niro) and Jewish New York accents (think Barbara Boxer) still flourish, but the accents in "Doubt" are the Irish American variety. The Irish, for whatever reason, don't talk like that anymore. Thus, "Doubt," among its other virtues, is a form of linguistic archaeology.

The film takes place in and around a Catholic school. Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep), the school principal, is a nun straight out of a collective Catholic nightmare. She's mean for the sake of meanness, and she's unrelenting, someone who makes school feel like prison. Through either ill will or uncanny perception, she decides that there is something shady about the parish's likable, liberal priest, Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman). And so she instructs pretty young Sister James (Amy Adams), who is the essence of kindness, to keep her eyes open.

When something happens that hints at the vaguest whiff of impropriety, Sister Aloysius pounces. She goes after the priest with everything she has. She is sure he is guilty, though how much her certainty is based on reason and how much it's based on wishful thinking and personal dislike is an open question. He is new-fashioned clergy, a product of Vatican II, and she is an old-fashioned nun who thinks "Frosty the Snowman" celebrates black magic and should be banned from the airwaves. Under the best of circumstances, these two people were going to dislike each other.

Much of the film pits the two in opposition, with her attacking and him deflecting. As played by Streep, Sister Aloysius is even more obnoxious and strident than Cherry Jones was in her Tony award-winning performance. Hoffman, as the priest, is more engaging - but that doesn't mean the sister isn't right about him. The truth of the movie is locked within Hoffman's performance: Because any actor who plays the priest has to decide for himself whether the priest is guilty or not, even as he conceals it, the actor alone knows what happened. Hoffman seems to tip it one way, though others might disagree.

Adams provides one of the film's singular advantages. She takes the role of Sister James, which onstage seemed little more than a sounding board for Sister Aloysius, and turns the young nun into someone quite specific and lovely.

-- Advisory: This film contains adult subject matter.

E-mail Mick LaSalle at mlasalle@sfchronicle.com.

This article appeared on page E - 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle


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