How did critics treat Doubt, a film starring Meryl Streep and Philip Seymor Hoffman and based on the award-winning play by John Patrick Shanley, the film's director/writer? The answer, of course, after the jump.
Doubt makes the most of the medium. Too many theatrical adaptations end up feeling stagy and stilted. Doubt builds upon the play, contextualizing and broadening the landscape while remaining true to its essence. Evocative overhead shots, symbolic visuals of a strong wind blowing around the school, and additional characters help to amplify and distill Shanley's vision.
But Streep's performance scales new heights of absurdity. Like you, I've heard all the critical (or, more accurately, not-so-critical) rumbling: "Streep's performance will surely win an Oscar!" That's observant: It's so lousy that it probably will. The nuns in "Doubt" are members of the Sisters of Charity, which means they wear puffy hoods that tie under the chin, instead of the more familiar veil-and-wimple penguin getup. It's a costumey look that does no actor any favors, but it seems to have had a particularly deleterious effect on Streep, turning her into an overplaying maniac. She glowers from behind her austere little spectacles like Sunbonnet Sue on a PMS tirade. Streep's character is designed to convey the idea that women in the church, circa the 1960s, were powerless yet possibly dangerous, while the men were entitled but confused, and probably mostly harmless. Shanley offers no resolution to this Sharks vs. Jets conflict. For that, we have to wait for "Doubt! The Musical."
Mr. Shanley has nothing deep to say about the church and its sex scandals, and he’s still largely using words and more words, despite the tilted camera angles and pretty pictures. But the words are good, solid, at times touching. His work with the actors is generally fine, though it’s a mystery what he thought Ms. Streep, with her wild eyes and an accent as wide as the Grand Concourse, was doing. Her outsize performance has a whiff of burlesque, but she’s really just operating in a different register from the other actors, who are working in the more naturalistic vein of modern movie realism. She’s a hoot, but she’s also a relief, because, for some of us, worshiping Our Lady of Accents is easier on the soul than doing time in church.
Hoffman gives a subtle, even moving performance as the priest whose earnest appeals to tolerance, compassion, and love double as a get-out-of-jail-free card from his own conscience. But Streep treks deep into Catholic-school cliché as the tyrannical nun who stares daggers and furiously holds the line against such innocent innovations as secular Christmas music ("'Frosty the Snowman' espouses a pagan belief in magic and should be banned from the airwaves," she snaps) and the ballpoint pen. She makes it through without tumbling into caricature—she is Meryl Streep, after all—but at times only barely. Adams, for her part, dims her usual luminescence as our surrogate witness to the dispute between doubt and certainty, and Davis delivers an impassioned, if limited, performance as the anxious mother.
A great actress delivers a breathtaking star turn in "Doubt," John Patrick Shanley's taut, twisty adaptation of his Pulitzer Prize-winning play. Her name is Viola Davis, and in one utterly galvanizing scene, she single-handedly defines this riveting movie, emerging as its most arrestingly conflicted character and — not incidentally in a film that's all about spiritual rigor — its most compelling and unsettling moral voice.
Davis, who has delivered similarly memorable supporting performances (see "Antwone Fisher"), isn't one of the marquee names on the poster for "Doubt." But she should be, if only because she so gracefully obeys what might be one of the Ten Commandments of Acting: Thou shalt steal every single scene you can, especially from Meryl Streep. Davis does it with an emotional honesty as fierce as the unmovable object in her character's path.
"Doubt" is a film with many fine elements, but its director, John Patrick Shanley, doesn't seem to trust them. Which is rather odd, because it was Shanley who wrote both the script and the play on which it's based.
While Streep has a tiny bit too much fun with some of her character's excesses, she's awfully good. So is Hoffman, who walks a fine line between obvious guilt and possible innocence. So is Adams, whose naivete stays this side of the wrong kind of comedy. And in a key, wrenching scene, Viola Davis—who plays the mother of the student at risk—makes complicated emotional sense of a woman caught in an unwinnable, untenable position.
Doubt. It is the subject of the sermon Father Flynn opens the film with. Doubt was coming into the church and the United States in 1964. Would you still go to hell if you ate meat on Friday? After the assassination of Kennedy and the beginnings of Vietnam, doubt had undermined American certainty in general. What could you be sure of? What were the circumstances? The motives? The conflict between Aloysius and Flynn is the conflict between old and new, between status and change, between infallibility and uncertainty. And Shanley leaves us doubting. I know people who are absolutely certain what conclusion they should draw from this film. They disagree. "Doubt" has exact and merciless writing, powerful performances and timeless relevance. It causes us to start thinking with the first shot, and we never stop. Think how rare that is in a film.
The film's most wrenching performance, in fact, comes from Viola Davis, who plays the boy's worried mother as a woman who is in no position to raise her voice, even when articulating a startlingly unexpected parental position on what may have transpired between the priest and her son.
The others argue strenuously and occasionally even eloquently, to ever-diminishing effect; Davis speaks plainly and quietly, and leaves not a shadow of a doubt that the moral high ground is a treacherous spot to occupy in the real world.
Shanley stays alert to the loneliness in his main characters. And the actors could not be better or more sensitive to his intentions. Viola Davis will blow your head around six ways from Sunday as Mrs. Muller, Donald's mother, a woman who knows her son in ways that leave Sister Aloysius speechless. In just one scene of the two women walking on a wintry day, the brilliant Davis gives a performance that will be talked about for years. Adams excels as the naive nun who tries to keep her balance on shifting moral ground. But it's hard to tear your attention from the center ring, where the two protagonists try to put the other on the ropes. Hoffman nails every nuance in a complex role. And Streep is unmissable and unforgettable, finding the bruised heart of a female warrior who knows what a monster she can seem and readily exploits it. You may have doubts about which side to choose, but there's no doubt about this mind-bender. It'll pin you to your seat.
Meanwhile, Streep, apparently left to her own devices, lugs a load of mannerisms under the pruny nun's severe black habit, encouraged by the movie's literal-minded director. Sister A may be an intimidating, spirit-breaking character — but for all that, she's also a servant of God unswerving in her code of right and wrong, and we ought to feel her burden. We don't. Speaking lines written to reach the stage heavens, the cast is infernally noisy and hectoring about mysteries that ought to be felt with a communal hush. I doubt that's what the creator — I mean the playwright — had in mind.
Shanley, directing his own work, throws in a few cinematic flourishes—he's big on tilted angles—but they only reinforce "Doubt's" theatrical nature. It's a meaty showcase for its stars. Streep, with her no-nonsense Bronx accent and know-it-all smirks, gives this battleaxe a sly wit: she may be working too hard, but she's fun to watch. Hoffman makes a worthy, sympathetic foe, but it's Viola Davis as Donald's mother who gets the most striking scene. Her reaction to Sister Aloysius's suggestion that Father Flynn is taking advantage of her boy is not at all what the sister, or we, expect. "Doubt" stirs up a lot of stormy theatrical weather, but the stolid transfer from stage to screen does Shanley's play no favors. It states its Big Themes eloquently, but, really, does it have anything interesting to say about them?
Collectors of large narrative signposts will spend a happy couple of hours at Shanley’s movie, enjoying the window-rattling thunderstorms that he uses to indicate spiritual crisis, and the grimness with which Sister Aloysius, narrowing her red-rimmed eyes, delivers the line “So, it’s happened.” I didn’t know you could hiss, groan, and murmur at the same time, but Streep can do anything. She is, of course, wasted on this elephantine fable; if only “Doubt” had been made in 1964, shot by Roger Corman over a long weekend, and retitled “Spawn of the Devil Witch” or “Blood Wimple,” all would have been forgiven.
'Doubt' premieres today in limited release.