In 1964 at St. Nicholas in the Bronx, charismatic Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman), is trying to modernise the schools' strict customs, which have long been fiercely guarded by Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Meryl Streep), the iron-gloved Principal who believes in the power of fear and discipline. The school has just accepted its first black student, Donald Muller (Joseph Foster). But when Sister James (Amy Adams), a hopeful innocent, shares with Sister Aloysius her suspicion that Father Flynn is paying too much (unhealthy) personal attention to Donald, Sister Aloysius sets off on a personal crusade to unearth the truth and to expunge Flynn from the school.
Review by Louise Keller:
Morality where you expect it most and uncertainty are the issues of contention in John Patrick Shanley's dramatic adaptation of his own play in which a nun with a disapproving view of the world and everyone in it, manipulates justice to serve her own beliefs. Carried by superlative performances, this engrossing and thought provoking film plants the seeds of doubt before agitating until the seeds have sprouted.
Guilt is a way of life to Meryl Streep's Sister Aloysius who believes in instilling fear in everyone around her. This lemon-mouthed, cynical dragon is so sour she believes a student would set his foot on fire or instigate a nose bleed to avoid school. Hence it is not surprising she clashes in a big way with the popular and progressive Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who not only has a cheerful disposition and communicates easily, but (shock horror) takes three sugar cubes in his tea, writes with a ballpoint pen and has long fingernails. Certainty without proof is her rationale when Sister Aloysius sets on a course to force her adversary to leave in uncertain circumstances.
Hoffman can do no wrong as he delivers yet again an exquisite portrayal against the formidable Streep; their verbal exchanges sent a shiver up my spine. Streep's constant mannerisms (shifting eyes and humming assent) were a distraction for me, but Viola Davis as the mother of the school's first black boy, of whom Father Flynn is suspected of molesting, brings the film's most powerful moment. Amy Adams is excellent as the impressionable young nun eager to assist the pursuit of any wrong doing, showing her ability to play a role with far more depth than those she portrayed in Enchanted and Miss Pettigrew.
Tension builds as we tread the pathway lined with both guilt and innocence. Even the camerawork at one point is at an angle, showing the skewed point of view. But ultimately it is up to us, the audience, to make our own assessments of what is right and wrong and Shanley directs the final scene, set in the chilly, snow-covered garden of the school to perfection.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
Coming in the wake of world wide scandals of paedophile priests, Doubt is both relevant and surprising. It's surprising because of what writer/director John Patrick Shanley does with the subject matter, which is to take a completely unexpected course. It's not a simplistic story about clear cut moral choices, but a complex case that is riveting for its lack of black and white, and rich in the greys that make up much of our lives.
Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is a kindly priest with progressive views about the role of the Church and engages our sympathies. Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep) is old school disciplinarian whose modus operandi is to rule the school by fear.
Sister James (Amy Adams) is a young innocent - but not a spineless one - whose methods rely more on kindness. There is a scene in which she is teaching her class, and on the blackboard she had written: The only thing we have to fear is fear itself, the famous Franklin D. Roosevelt admonition, which resonates for its relevance as Sister Aloysius turns her righteous wrath on Father Flynn, on the flimsiest premise - a mere wisp of suspicion that Sister James brings to her attention. Father Flynn is championing the school's only black student, Donald Muller (Jospeh Foster) and perhaps there is more to it than is good for the boy.
Viola Davis delivers another heartbreaking performance as Donald's mother, who provides richer context for the boy's presence at the school, and underlines the importance of him getting through.
From this simple, everyday scenario, Shanley works up a spectacular clash of spiritual methods and fans the flames of every kind of fear in the process. So clever is the writing, the direction and the performances that we swing to and fro in our trust and belief in Father Flynn. We despise Sister Aloysius for her bitter crusade one minute, but then doubt Father Flynn's innocence the next.
Shanley demonstrates the negative power of suspicions aired but ensures that we are never privy to the pivotal event that leads to the suspicions that trigger the episode and even after the film's wrenching conclusion, we are still in doubt.
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CAST: Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Viola Davis, Alice Drummond, Audrie J. Neenan, Susan Blommaert, Carrie Preston
PRODUCER: Scott Rudin
DIRECTOR: John Patrick Shanley
SCRIPT: John Patrick Shanley
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Roger Deakins
EDITOR: Dylan Tichenor
MUSIC: Howard Shore
PRODUCTION DESIGN: David Gropman
RUNNING TIME: 104 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Walt Disney
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: January 15, 2009