January 30, 2009

No Doubt



It is one of the best I've seen and I say this not only because I'm a fan of Philip Seymour Hoffman and Meryl Streep.

John Patrick Shanley's "Doubt" does not disappoint. Hoffman, Amy Adams and Meryl Streep are brilliant--each is the foil to the other. Adams as the caring and compassionate teacher who starts to doubt Seymour Hoffman's intentions as regards a boy in her class and informs Streep of her doubt which, in turn, reinforces Streep who had no doubts about Seymour Hoffman's guilt and Seymour Hoffman's bewildered priest who, despite professing complete innocence, lends doubts as to his innocence by doing something unexpected. Each feeds of the other's doubt or absence of doubt and the result is an energy that propels this movie.

Great writing. Great acting. Great movie.

Seymour Hoffman is a great find for this role as Fr. Flynn who faces up to the inquisition, as it were. At first, you see him as one who is sure of himself, that he has done nothing wrong; his explanations to Amy Adams' Sr. James and to Streep's Sr. Aloysius are not implausible as they might have happened exactly that way but . . . there is something to what he is saying or how he says it that just lends that nagging, yes, doubt. Later, you see him trying to assert not just his innocence but his authority when he screams at Streep that she can't do what she's doing (meaning, putting him, a priest, essentially on trial and challenging him) because "you answer to us" (meaning, the nuns answer to the priests); to which he gets Streep's riposte that she would do what she's doing outside the church if needed. And there you get the full gravity of Seymour Hoffman's own doubt and Streep's immovable certainty.

Streep is, predictably, superb here. She is terrifying as Sr. Aloysius Beauvier who is steel through and through and is, like Hugo's Javert, unflinching, self-righteous and resolute. She is the teacher/nun/principal all of us, who went to Catholic school, hated and feared. She knows she is not loved but feared and she revels in this. This is her power--that she is feared. Yet, there is something about this that makes her, in a sense, incomplete; and that is why her puzzling relationship with Sr. James, a kind and kind-hearted nun who genuinely is loved and loves genuinely, comes in. Aloysius seeks James out in the same way that, all throughout the movie, Flynn's character seeks out the boy. And we are placed in a tableau within a tableau where Aloysius's absence of doubt is peeled away bit by bit by her need for Sr. James's affirmation. The consistency of her characterization all throughout makes the film's last scene a marvelous way to end this movie.

Amy Adams is perfect for the role. She is us in this movie--caught between Flynn and Aloysius. It is through her eyes that we see and through her thoughts that we judge Flynn and Aloysius.

The sexual abuse of a boy by a priest is only hinted all throughout and leads you to make your own conclusions--trying Seymour Hoffman's Fr. Flynn privately in your mind. The unravelling of information about Sr. Aloysius and Fr. Flynn is done subtly, deliberately and allows us to re-examine our own doubts about what we are witnessing. The film makes no judgments, it allows us to do that.

Seymour Hoffman's Fr. Flynn and Amy Adams's Sr. James are perfectly human; in the end, both are riddled with doubt. It is Streep's character, which all throughout is consistent in self-righteousness and resoluteness, that drives the movie. And then the last scene of the film comes along, making it perfectly clear that, yes, she too is perfectly human.

It is a small (if I may call a film with Academy Award Winners Streep, Hoffman and Shanley small) film with big themes--doubt, intolerance, isolation. But in the end, another big theme emerges--not doubt, not intolerance, not isolation, but faith.

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