Thursday, December 18, 2008

Film review: No 'Doubt' about the superlative performances

Meryl Streep as Sister Aloysius in Doubt.

By Hap Erstein
Hollywood demands happy endings that will leave an audience reassured and uplifted. John Patrick Shanley’s Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning play — and now movie — prefers disquieting ambiguity.

But if he has no intention of presenting us with the answer to the moral puzzle he spins (not whodunit, but did-he-do-it), as least Shanley offers a juicy trio of scenery-chewing performances to enjoy along the way. The Oscar-winning screenwriter (Moonstruck) plops himself in the director’s chair for only the second time — 18 years after the less-than-satisfying, allegorical Joe Versus the Volcano and he knows enough to get out of the way of actors of the caliber of Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Viola Davis.

As with Frost/Nixon, the other major release this month that stems from the stage, Doubt boils down to a stand-off between two opposite forces with vastly different views of the world.

On the one hand is stern, professionally suspicious Sister Aloysius (Streep), principal of the Bronx’s St. Nicholas Catholic School, a woman who prides herself on seeing things in black and white. The first time we see her, she is peeking out of a black bonnet, slapping students into sitting up straight in church or yelling them awake. She sees herself as a disciplinarian and that requires going through life with unwavering certainty.

As it happens, the sermon that Sunday morning is about doubt, delivered by affable, compassionate Father Flynn (Hoffman), the kind of priest who understands the value of the color gray, a guy who would be hard not to like.

Yet when a young chipper nun (Amy Adams) reports to Aloysius that Flynn had a private meeting in the rectory with 12-year-old Donald Miller, the first black student ever admitted to the school, Aloysius becomes convinced that Flynn made “inappropriate” advances on the boy, a hunch that hardens into certainty.

The movie is set in 1964, at the time when Shanley was attending parochial school. But the time frame is also at a crafty distance from the frequent reports of sexual abuse by priests in recent years.

Shanley and teddy bear-ish Hoffman have us on Flynn’s side from the start. The priest is apparently only taking an avuncular interest in the outcast child, whereas the narrow-minded Aloysius is suspicious of Flynn for such crimes as using ballpoint pens, taking large amounts of sugar in his tea and being in favor of secular holiday carols.

As played with a broad Bronx accent and squinty, bespectacled eyes by Streep, Aloysius is every task master teacher any of us every had, and we are quickly repelled by her. But nothing is certain in Doubt, and Shanley’s clever, if wordy, screenplay will whipsaw viewers’ allegiances without ever definitively tipping its hand.

Shanley’s adaptation of his play is pretty rudimentary. He opens the story out, showing us the church rituals, the blue-collar community and, significantly, little Donald. But it remains a compact and brief (97 minutes) story, intriguing, but not really as substantial as the Pulitzer would imply. Nor is Shanley much of a director, leaning on the use of tilted camera shots and literal illustrations of Flynn’s sermons, while keeping matters claustrophobic.

Whether he had much effect on his cast’s acting choices, Shanley gets some terrific performances from his principals, including a couple of nose-to-nose confrontations between Streep and Hoffman that are especially electric. And for sheer larcenous scene-stealing, you cannot beat Davis as Donald’s fiercely protective mother, called to Aloysius’ office for a conference and ready to look the other way from wrong-doing.

Still, it is the performances that linger, rather than the issues involved. Doubt is definitely a film to put on your holiday must-see list — albeit second-tier — for the textbook tour-de-force acting, not the insights to the crisis facing our religious institutions.

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