A performance-centric adaptation of a powerhouse piece of stagecraft about a potential case of child abuse, John Patrick Shanley’s big screen translation of his own 2005 Tony Award-winning play Doubt is an effectively ambiguous, high-pedigree adult drama that entangles viewers in slow, sure-handed fashion. Intimately constructed, tightly wound and above all trusting of an audience’s appreciation for textual subtlety, the film is sure to be short-listed in several top-shelf categories this awards season.
Steeped in implied emotional blackmail, Doubt is thematically reminiscent of David Mamet’s Oleanna, another streamlined, muted, character-focused piece hinging on variable audience interpretation of a charged interpersonal (though in this case offscreen) event. Peddling as a grander, more bitterly personalized conflict the moral inscrutability at Doubt‘s center might help expand its box office prospects beyond the otherwise core constituency of upscale drama fans. Regardless, considerable critical and awards attention will power mid-level box office when it releases Stateside on December 12, and international interest should be fairly strong as well given the film’s heavy religious overtones.
Set in 1964, the film unfolds at St. Nicholas, a private Catholic academy in the Bronx where all the middle school students cringe at being sent to the imperious Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Meryl Streep), the principal who believes in the power of fear and discipline. Much more sympathetic to the difficulties of adolescence is Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the relatively new parish priest who seems attuned to the waves of societal change spreading across the country.
When Father Flynn seems to take a special interest in the school’s first African-American student, Donald (Joseph Foster II), it triggers suspicion in history teacher Sister Marie James (Amy Adams), who reports her concerns to Sister Beauvier. Despite a lack of any firm evidence other than her own surging sense of moral certainty, Sister Beauvier becomes convinced of Father Flynn’s inappropriate sexual advances upon young Donald, and ignites a battle of wills in an effort to oust him from the school. Is he guilty, and will he confess?
In adapting the material for the screen, Shanley neither tries to greatly expand the scope of the story, nor fetishize or inflate the narrative with fancy directorial tricks. Quite to the contrary, in fact; shot by cinematographer Roger Deakins in muted tones that seemingly convey the autumnal chill of the air, even indoors, the movie frequently feels as if it takes place in its own sealed snow globe, in the best possible sense. In keeping with the piece’s theatrical roots, Shanley also uses weather cues, both onscreen and in the sound mix, as signifiers of mood or emotional gravitas.
The centerpiece is a fabulous sequence between Flynn and Sisters Beauvier and James, in which tea and the pretense of a discussion about the coming Christmas play give way to a much more direct confrontation than we’ve seen coming. Shanley directs notably this extended scene, but also a few others, essentially as chess matches — letting the audience observe characters feeling out one another, deciding how much to say, and when to finally flash their swallowed irritation or indignation. Given that so many films trade in only the quick turn of emotion necessary to immediately advance plot, it’s a rare treat to watch the full arc of an emotional reaction in several self-contained scenes. For the full original review, from Screen International, click here. (Miramax, PG-13, 104 minutes)