Oscar-worthy acting in melodrama about priest suspected of pedophilia
Playwright John Patrick Shanley, best known to filmgoers for writing "Moonstruck," returns to the screen with "Doubt," which might have been called "Nunstruck." Shanley adapted and directed his 2005 play, which won about every award possible, into a movie that’s nearly as good.
The film deals with the same issues as the play in a slightly less cloistered fashion. It’s set in 1964, so integration is going on, even in the Bronx. St. Nicholas School has its "first Negro student" this fall term, Donald Miller (Joseph Foster II). Things are difficult for him, so kindly parish priest Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) takes a special interest in him, making him an altar boy and giving him private counseling in the rectory.
If that raises the possibility of misdeeds in your dirty mind, imagine what it does for Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep), the school principal and paragon of moral rectitude. Known without affection as "the Dragon," Sister Aloysius objects to ballpoint pens, barrettes, long fingernails on men and "Frosty the Snowman" — although she may be open to changing her mind about transistor radios. This is a woman who sees the devil everywhere, whether he’s wearing Prada or not.
She runs an old-school school and initially sets out to get Father Flynn because he represents "progressive education and a welcoming church." There’s also an unspoken battle of the sexes going on, with Sister Aloysius defending the sisterhood of the Sisterhood against the priests’â€š good ol’ boys network. To this end, she shows uncharacteristic kindness in protecting an older nun who’s going blind.
When naÃ¯ve Sister James (Amy Adams, not very different — except in wardrobe — from her performance in "Enchanted") reports what she’s observed about Donald Miller, Sister Aloysius has the ammunition she’s been looking for.
So sure she’s right, she doesn’t need the facts on her side, Sister Aloysius boasts, "It’s my job to outshine the fox in cleverness." At times, especially in the early scenes, Streep makes her almost a parody of a nun the students fear more than God. Mostly, she’s the ultimate totalitarian ruler. It’s almost disappointing to see her betray a spark of humanity in the rather abrupt ending.
The key scene, which will earn Viola Davis an Oscar nomination, even though it’s the only scene she appears in, is a meeting between Sister Aloysius and Donald’s mother (Davis). The latter presents the point of view of a working-class woman who can’t observe everyday reality from an ivory tower. Without getting into specific spoilers, she raises the possibility that there could be worse things than a pedophile priest. Whether Father Flynn is guilty or innocent is never as important as what Sister Aloysius does to bring him down and why.
Shanley’s play had only four characters: the priest, the nuns and the mother. Opening it up for the screen allows us to know Donald and some of the other children, and to see rather than imagine Sister Aloysius’ sternness and Father Flynn’s kindness toward them. He even encourages one flirtatious girl while Sister Aloysius seats her as far from the boys as possible and calls her "Miss Horan" with the emphasis on the "Hor."
There’s a rather silly, literal depiction of the winds of social change reflected in the weather, and the extras in the church scenes look like still photographs. But overall, the opening up makes "Doubt" look like a film while retaining the lengthy dialogue scenes of the play.
As for Streep, she’s the Sister Aloysius of actresses. Whatever she does must be right. Just give her an award and move on.
Director: John Patrick Shanley
Cast: Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Viola Davis
Opens: Friday, Dec. 12 at Angelika-Dallas • 1 hr. 44 min. • PG-13
GLOBES MOSTLY OVERLOOK ‘MILK’
In true fickle fashion, the Golden Globe nominations concentrated on late-season films, many yet to receive wide release, in choosing the best of the year. Yet the nominees still tend to be depressingly mainstream.
"Milk," the brilliant biopic of the slain gay leader, received only one nomination, for Sean Penn’s fiery performance, pictured. Bisexual director Stephen Daldry was also singled out for the war-crime drama "The Reader," which received a total of five nods.
Two Meryl Streep movies with gay content, the ABBA musical "Mamma Mia!" and the somber drama "Doubt," garnered two and five nominations a piece, including a double dip for Streep.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition December 12, 2008.