Going into "Doubt," I had a principle concern. While having heard its performances universally praised, I feared that the film would fail to produce the sensation which its title seemed to promise.
It appeared like a power struggle between a likable character and an evil character that would result in the audience never seriously considering the central controversy. It would be obvious that the good guy didn't do that of which he was accused. Thankfully this was not the case at all.
"Doubt" is based on a 2005 play by its writer-director, John Patrick Shanley. The play and its film are set in a Catholic school in the Bronx in 1964, struggling with the changes of the Vatican II commission which modernized the Catholic church. On the one hand you have Father Brendan Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman,) a popular parish priest who the children like and who thinks the clergy should be warm and loving. On the other is Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Meryl Streep,) the disciplinarian principal of the school who inspires terror within her students. She is distrustful of Flynn's vision. In the middle is Sister James (Amy Adams,) a younger nun and eighth grade teacher under Sister Beauvier's supervision.
There is only one black child in the school, Donald Miller (Joseph Foster.) Donald becomes an altar boy and develops a warm relationship with Father Flynn who comforts the boy when he's tormented. One day Father Flynn calls Donald out of Sister James's class to the rectory. When he returns he seems upset and Sister James smells alcohol on his breath. Later, in a discussion with Sister Aloysius, she mentions the friendship between Father Flynn and Donald and the intimidating principal draws out the story and the questionable detail of the alcohol.
Convinced of wrongdoing by Father Flynn, Sister Aloysius then begins an investigation into what happened that includes meeting Donald's mother (Viola Davis.) As Sister Aloysius uncovers new facts and confronts Father Flynn the truth becomes anything but clear.
The reason most people seem to be praising "Doubt" is for its acting. Hoffman, Streep, Davis, and Adams have all received Golden Globe nominations for their performances. One can expect something similar to happen when the Academy Award nominations are announced.
Hoffman continues to show his chameleon-like acting abilities. He seems to be able to be anyone. His 2005 Oscar-win for "Capote" was inevitable. Hoffman's talent was apparent to those first discovering him in the late '90s in several independent film roles. In 1997's "Boogie Nights" he played an awkward, closeted gay man who worked on the crew of '70s porn films. In 1998's cult classic "The Big Lebowski" he turned a seemingly throwaway role as Brandt, the personal assistant to the titular character, into something special. Most important, though, was his performance in Todd Solondz's "Happiness" as a drunken, obscene phone caller. Now in "Doubt" he provides further evidence that he's one of the greatest actors of his generation. His performance, along with Adams, Streep, and Davis, sucks the audience into an absorbing drama and character study.
More engaging even than the acting are the film's numerous thematic threads. Several issues dance around the edges of the dominant philosophical question. The first is the issue already mentioned - the conflict between the old ways of the church (symbolized in Sister Aloysius) and the new, more gentle approach (symbolized in Father Flynn.) The impressionable Sister James sits between the two. There's also a gender question involved given that the conflict centers between a priest and a nun. Power is distributed unevenly in the church between the genders and technically Father Flynn is Sister Aloysius's superior. Racial questions hang in the balance - the alleged victim is the school's only black student and the film is set in the Civil Rights era. Even questions of sexual orientation come into play. And then one certainly can't escape seeing the drama in the context of the controversial history and current events of molestation within the Catholic Church.
The primary theme of the film, though - doubt - is a question of exhilaration to a mystical agnostic like myself. It's a sheer joy to see this issue explored so openly in a film such as this. No one knows if Father Flynn molested Donald Miller. There's no clear evidence that he did and his denial and explanation seem credible. Yet Sister Aloysius acts in certainty. She begins a campaign to destroy him even though she is without evidence. She's not a one dimensional villain, though. Throughout the film there are tiny clues planted to indicate she might be right about Father Flynn. If she's wrong then she's a villain destroying an innocent man. If she's correct then she would be rightfully lauded as a hero who helped bring a predator to justice and protect a community. Yet is that really her motive? Or are Sister Aloysius's perceptions colored by her biases against Father Flynn's ideas and her desire to maintain her power? The answers to these questions are also in doubt.
The controversy of this possible molestation is a metaphor for every question of doubt. Every time we don't have ample evidence and are confronted with the possibility of acting or making a decision we are thrust into the role of Sister James, the neutral, conflicted third party, stuck between two extremes of opinion. It's the question of whether Jesus rose from the dead. It's the question of whether we should have invaded Iraq. It's every "he-said-she-said" controversy. This applies to religion, politics, and even our interpersonal relationships - the totality of human experience. "Doubt" is an enriching meditation and dramatic entertainment on this universal struggle and I can't recommend it enough.