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Dirty Story and Other Plays
by John Patrick Shanley
(Discounted Paperback from Amazon)
. "Doubt"

I hope I can be forgiven for making a broad observation, but it seems to me that religion comes with a great deal of self-righteousness in the name of piety. How about those who espouse their sense of morality as being the only correct one? Give me a break! Given daily bombardment of much the same from the political sphere, it gets increasingly challenging for an objective person to find cover. Obviously, religion and politics were put on this earth to test patience and reason.

The problem for believers is that when the plank of support for such overweaning certainty shows rot or transparency, the subject of this movie is what follows. Doubt, indeed. And, all its ramifications, like this corruption of good intentions.

From the icy pen of auteur John Patrick Shanley, and with the superb characterizations, dramatic structure and dialogue--the product of its seasoning as a Broadway stage play--comes an essentially three-party skirmish among church officials in which inept judgement and unsupported accusations are the coin of the church realm, circa 1964.

It would seem that Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Meryl Streep) has an aversion for Father Brendan Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman), and probably has since he arrived at "her" church. Something about the man. Something about the subjects of his sermons. What exactly did he mean when he delivered one on doubt? The man is a provacateur, misguided, or worse.

As predisposition can lead to unvarnished certainty, Beauvier who, as the principal, runs the church school like a detention camp inspiring high fear in her children-inmates. She turns an observation of Flynn giving special attention to Donald Miller (Joseph Foster II), the only African-American student in the population... er, class, into a liaison. Though, in the strict sense of evidence, nothing untoward was observed, Beauvier has her own instinctual wand of certainty--the one that makes her tyrannical rule possible--and she proceeds to mount an inquisition and then an overt attack on the Father.

In the middle of all this is Sister James, a teacher who doesn't conduct her 8th grade class with the strictness Beauvier thinks adequate, but that's all right since the senior Sister, in her role as the principal, takes the daily liberty of strolling through the class during any lesson she cares to, and brings inattentive or cheating students the required jab or punishment.

The story then proceeds with the taking down of her enemy through the manufacture of scandal over reports and detections that could be interpreted with all the ambiguity of one's moralistic mind. In this, Sister James is not an ally but a naif alarmed by her elder's adamant and questionable ways, feaful of the truth, and careful, in the end, to listen to the tune of her own perception and judgement.

In this, Amy Adams, that sweet "Enchanted" young thing, comes to the rescue as the pure voice of reason, ready to be shocked by the "apparent" meaning of her own discoveries but sensitive and wizened to the insubstantiality of the lurid charges against a person she perceives differently. Adams is a study in Cinderella-ish simplicity masking a searching adult of doubt and independent thought. Adams' design is to make you think that drill instructor Beauvier can use her as a sycophantish supporter, and then revealing your underestimation of her. There's nothing squimish in her black-frocked presence, making this relationship between authoritarian and truth-seeker revealing and indispensable to the play.

Get it now! (Click on item link)
  • Doubt: From Stage to Screen
  • Scoring Doubt
  • The Cast of Doubt
  • The Sisters of Charity
  • Feature Commentary with writer/director John Patrick Shanley
    The Blu-ray Edition DVD

  • Same as above
    The Soundtrack
    Original Score by Howard Shore

  • Streep is tone perfect in a meaty role that gives her another opportunity to use her character-making wizardry and again set the bar at an altitude where the air is as rare as her thespianic equals. No doubt about that. But Hoffman holds his own in a standout performance for the year 2008 which is a great deal more accessible than his other-worldly "Synecdoche."

    My only quibble goes to Shanley for the unnatural exchanges between the principles in the climactic encounters of the third act. His people attain combustible levels of emotion and breakdown, only to douse the sparks with almost out-of-character objectivity in order to finally convey the ultimate application of the theme-soaked title. A little too pat, he makes it, and I can't elaborate on it any more than that.

    Without doubt, this is an award-seeking missile of a film and it contains enough writing and performance firepower to reach its target. For fans of astute casting artillery, it's a must-see.

    Click for full list of movie reviews

                                          ~~  Jules Brenner  

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