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Suffer the Children to Come Unto Me

Doubt (2008)

Andrew Schwartz/Miramax Films

John Patrick Shanley plumbs the depths of the soul in “Doubt,” first a play and now a film that confronts the toxicity of the fallacious belief that one’s convictions should never change, no matter the circumstance. It begins with a sermon delivered by Father Brendan Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) in which he says that “doubt can be a bond as powerful and sustaining as certainty” and segues into a compelling morality play surrounding that notion. Although the material worked better onstage – Mr. Shanley is a much better writer than he is film director – the big screen version boasts predictably terrific acting by Mr. Hoffman, Meryl Streep and Amy Adams and all the power and wisdom of its maker’s unique insights into human nature.

Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Ms. Streep), mother superior at a Bronx Catholic school circa 1964, views with suspicion the overly-friendly relationship between Father Flynn, the parish priest, and new student Donald Miller (Joseph Foster). When some circumstantial events lead Sister James (Amy Adams) to share her suspicion, Aloysius begins a concerted effort to get to the bottom of what she’s sure has happened and to ultimately drive Father Flynn from the parish. This story, as scripted by Mr. Shanley, is filled with long-winded conversations, philosophical digressions and carefully blocked, coldly-lit moments of near confession. On stage the structuralism applied to the narrative makes sense, as so much is literally and metaphorically imagined. The verité quality of cinema, on the other hand, typically requires some sort of naturalist force to counteract the staginess.

Mr. Shanley finds it in his choice of actors. Ms. Streep – sure to receive her umpteenth Oscar nomination – makes Sister Aloysius at once terrifying and perceptibly human. She’s the stern, frightening teacher we’ve all had and a woman with very real, apparent failings. Standing in direct opposition, Mr. Hoffman plays Father Flynn as warm, humane and bighearted, and he effectively develops a natural rapport with the children. A lesser movie – one that viewed this material through a simpler lens – would look at their basic traits and draw obvious conclusions as to the villains and heroes in this story, but both actors subtly emphasize moments that hint at the characters’ other sides, thus blurring that clear-cut line. Ms. Adams, as the story’s middle-of-the-road bellwether, too deserves recognition. She seems at first to be playing the “Enchanted” princess version of a nun, soft spoken and relatable. But her brow goes firmer and her demeanor more stern, and her anguish over the situation flows from her eyes.

Much of the credit for the success of “Doubt” should be given to the narrative Mr. Shanley wrote and the significance – both contemporary and timeless – that it holds. As we in America reach the end of an eight-year period of governance by a President who (like him or not) refused to see any of the challenges before him in terms other than good-vs.-evil, us-vs.-them, the film serves as a powerful and sober reminder of the dangers of such a perspective. Doubt is not a sexy emotion. It prolongs our problems, facilitates agony and refuses to let us rationalize our behavior in tangible, satisfying ways. It’s not the stuff most movies are made of. “Doubt” never answers any of the questions it raises, and it doesn’t offer a big cathartic payoff. But in evoking the complexities at the core of our shared humanity, it’s second to none.


Opens on Dec. 12 in New York and on Feb. 6, 2009 in Britain.

Written and directed by John Patrick Shanley; based on his play; director of photography, Roger Deakins; edited by Dylan Tichenor; music by Howard Shore; production designer, David Gropman; produced by Scott Rudin and Mark Roybal; released by Miramax Films. Running time: 1 hour 44 minutes. This film is rated PG-13 by M.P.A.A.

WITH: Meryl Streep (Sister Aloysius Beauvier), Philip Seymour Hoffman (Father Brendan Flynn), Amy Adams (Sister James), Viola Davis (Mrs. Miller) and Joseph Foster II (Donald Miller).


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