In his play, Doubt, writer John Shanley said that he wanted the last Act to be the conversation that two people had with each other as they left the theatre. “Did he or didn’t he? ... Did you just see the same production as me?”
The expectations of the average cinema goer is I think different to that of the average theatre audience. I don’t know if its an unwillingness to be challenged, more that we expect a resolution, or at least have the film declare its moral viewpoint.
In adapting for the big screen, Shanley (who also directs) has fleshed out the look and feel of the story by developing ancillary characters, such as other students and nuns, and staging the whole production in the very catholic primary school in the Bronx, New York he attended as a child.
School principal and head nun, Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep) is the type of school mistress that adheres to the rigid customs of discipline and order, of whom the “students are uniformly terrified.”
Sister Aloysius suspects Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) of inappropriate behaviour with the school’s first and only black student, 12 year old Donald Miller. What she lacks in proof, she makes up for in moral certainty. Sister Aloysius asks Sister James (Amy Adams) to watch for any suspicious behaviour and when Sister James observes young Miller’s unusual actions after returning from a visit to Father’s office, with alcohol on his breath, Sister Aloysius’ suspicions are confirmed.
At the halfway point in this film, all three characters meet in Sister Aloysius’ office. Amy Adams plays wide eyed sweetness and innocence better than most, and her role here of the good hearted, naive Sister James is described by Shanley as “the warm centre between two battling giants.” And what a scene it is. Streep just explodes as her character is able to sharpen the blade of her moral outrage on Seymour Hoffman’s whetstone. Every thrust of hers is met with his parry, and her Oscar nomination is justified from this scene alone.
This leads to Sister Aloysius meeting with the boy’s mother, Mrs Miller (Viola Davis) whose attitude and reaction is entirely unexpected and catches Sister Aloysius unawares.
Sister Aloysius is motivated by care and love, even if it is demonstrated in an austere manner. Her dry humour and sharp observations serve to humanise her away from the spotlight of students and peers. In her bid to “outshine the fox in cleverness,” to force Father Flynn to confess, she calls in to question her own integrity, which is one of many ‘doubts’ one has in the watching, which is perhaps the point.
Father Flynn likewise claims to have the student’s best interest at heart but is at odds with Sister Aloysius in his desire to modernise their Catholic customs, schooling and worship. The film is set in 1964, the year of the Second Vatican Council which relaxed some of the strict customs that had been followed up to then; this provides some context to their backgrounds.
The opening line to the film is the start of Father Flynn’s sermon, “What do you do when you’re not sure?” This question hangs in the balance for the duration of the film. Our emotions are swayed by the calibre of the acting and the small glimpses we think we see. As I stated at the beginning, when watching a film, we are “trained” to look for cues that will assist us in unravelling the film. This film tries to absolve itself of this and leave it up to us to make a decision on what to believe. While this may work well in a stage play, I’m not so sure it works well here. The ending just didn’t quite work for me and a key character’s final scene felt out of touch with the rest of the film.
All four actors, Streep, Seymour Hoffman, Adams and Davis, received Best Acting Oscar nominations which gives the film its force. The set design and the behaviour of the characters is entirely believable and helps tell the story. 3 out of 5 for me.