BY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC
Producer Scott Rudin has demonstrated a show of faith by putting acclaimed playwright John Patrick Shaley in the director’s seat for the first time in eighteen years to helm the film adaptation of Shanley’s Pulitzer Prize-winning religious drama, Doubt. The Oscar-winner screenwriter of Moonstruck gave up film directing eighteen years ago after directing the cult bomb Joe Versus the Volcano. While placing faith in Shanley’s unimaginative direction may have been misguided, it is not enough to sink a film with a script whose writing is so divine.
Stubbornly hemming to the play’s claustrophobic setting, Doubt takes place in the confines of the Bronx’s St. Nicholas church school in the year 1964. Sister Aloysius is the Nun from Hell, ruling the school with an iron fist and striking fear into the hearts of fidgeting kids parish-wide. She’s contrasted by Father Flynn, a new younger Priest with an ingratiating manner who attempts to loosen the rigid atmosphere of the school by actually engaging with the kids. When Father Flynn takes an interest in the lone African American student who is being bullied at the school, Sister Aloysius perceives that something is inappropriate in their relationship. She recruits the naive young nun Sister James to help her find a way to banish Father Flynn from the parish.
With recent hits The Devil Wears Prada and Mamma Mia renewing her box office clout, Meryl Streep gives one of her boldest performances yet as Sister Aloysius. Perhaps the performance borders on too bold. This cold-hearted nun may be living a life of self-denial yet Streep makes her extra indulgent in all things dramatic. Clutching her cross like it is a ship’s mast in stormy seas, Streep doesn’t let is single emotion in the script escape before it is lined and under-lined. Of course this is Grande Dame Meryl Streep hamming it up, so she does summon a certain late Joan Crawford-style of hysterical intensity but you would think for the sake of the script director Shanley might have gathered the courage to say, “One more time Ms. Streep, only this time a little smaller”. She’s pitted against Philip Seymour Hoffman, never more likable as Father Flynn, and he seems only so willing to travel out on a dramatic limb to pull Streep back to earth.
While they battle to anchor the script’s drama the story itself is such a well-sculpted piece of writing it is probably indestructible. The moral of an early sermon by Father Flynn deals with the importance of testing your beliefs with doubt and the relevance of his speech reveals new meanings as the facts concerning Sister Aloysius’ suspicions take shape. When Father Flynn delivers his heartfelt speech about the world mistaking kindness for weakness to the meek Sister James (Amy Adams, slightly out-gunned by the acting behemoths surrounding her), we begin to believe with certainty in his innocence. By then Shanley has us roped; once we’re believing his characters with certainly he has set the stage for that nagging title emotion to remind ourselves of everything we do not know for sure. It is a film designed to illustrate a parable and to cap it off perfectly, the film also leaves the audience room for a little bit of doubt.