Sunday, January 04, 2009

Doubt / **** (PG-13)

Sister Aloysius Beauvier: Meryl Streep
Father Brendan Flynn: Philip Seymour Hoffman
Sister James: Amy Adams
Mrs. Miller: Viola Davis

Miramax Films presents a film written and directed by John Patrick Shanley, based on his play. Running time: 104 min Rated PG-13 (for thematic material).

“Doubt” is such an accomplished film I could spend an entire review writing on any one of its many fine attributes. I could write about John Patrick Shanley’s vivid screenplay, based on his own Pulitzer Prize-winning play, which gives us a portrait of a 1960’s Catholic school that is something more benevolent than a rigid institution resistant to the change that we are all so reluctant to embrace. I could write about how surprising it is to see a writer such as Shanley show such a keen directorial eye behind his camera. This places his work here on the level of the cinematic greats, such as Scorsese or Ozu or Bergman. I could write about the superb production design and cinematography that so accurately, yet subtly, captures such a specific period in American history and reproduces it in such an unassuming manner. I could write about the themes of the movie and how smart it was to place its events during the civil rights movement when they so clearly apply to the world we live in today. I could write about the movie’s true subject matter, the struggle we all face between faith and doubt in all aspects of life, even outside of religion. I could write about any or all of these things because this movie accomplishes them all with such artistic adeptness while never seeming to reach for anything. Instead, I will concentrate my review on a subject I usually tend to avoid—the acting.

I don’t mention acting much in my movie reviews because I’ve been an actor. I am an actor. I know what a hard discipline acting is, and I know that acting in film is unforgiving. It is a medium in which an audience has to be completely unaware that there is a performance going on. This can only be achieved by not performing. This is why some actors can jump into a film with no acting experience whatsoever; because they don’t know they must perform. For the trained actor, once you have reached the level of experience that you can “not” perform on film, there is very little criticism you deserve. And so, film acting becomes more an exercise in casting because everybody in film is damn good at what they do.

That is not to say that some actors aren’t better than others. There is little doubt that Meryl Streep is the greatest actress of her generation. She will surely add her 15th Oscar nomination to her status as the most nominated performer in Academy history with this work. Most actors would take a character like the school’s principal, Sister Aloysius Beauvier, and make her into a rigid, heartless, witch of a disciplinarian, who finds no connection with the world in which she has been given a position of authority. This is the principal that the students and most of the faculty of this small private school see. But in Streep’s performance you can always see something underneath, driving her actions and convictions, something warm and pure, something that means more than just strict enforcement of the rules.

When a young nun comes to her with suspicions that the church’s priest might be practicing an inappropriate relationship with the school’s first black student, Streep’s words are of the same cold, rigid nature as those she uses to keep order among the students, but her demeanor is one of careful consideration that speaks volumes of the ramifications such a scandal could have on the school. Her look considers the young nun’s future, her own position, the priest’s, the fact that the boy is black, how the church will look as a tolerant or intolerant institution in the eyes of the community, even the question of the validity of such an accusation. Yet with all that, her words never seem to question the truth of the situation. She knows the priest is guilty.

As Father Brendan Flynn, Philip Seymour Hoffman (“Capote”) never shows his hand on the truth of the matter. Hoffman plays Flynn as a sympathetic man—a man to whom the boys of the school go to feel safe from the wrath of Sister Beauvier. There is a wonderful moment where a boy who has been sent to the principal’s office sits down next to Father Flynn on a bench outside her door. Flynn turns to the boy and asks why he was sent to the principal’s office. The boy says for talking. Flynn nods and faces out again as if he feels he’s been sent there for the same reason.

Streep and Hoffman have two verbal showdowns where their gifts for subtlety add humor and tension. The first is a sort of feeling out of each other. Streep never searches for Hoffman’s guilt—of that she is certain. What she is looking for is just what kind of animal he is. Hoffman plays their first scene so close to his chest that he is either very crafty or innocent of her accusations. In their second meeting, each animal has its claws out. Hoffman is more ferocious, but nothing can shake Streep’s certainty. Streep on the other hand—much like a similar scene of vulnerability found in her turn as a fashion mogul in “The Devil Wears Prada”—shows there is flesh and blood under her shell with her reaction to Hoffman’s questioning of her own righteousness.

Outside the fray, but greatly affected by it, is the character of Sister James. Amy Adams (“Enchanted”) once again captures the heart of the audience, while providing our eyes for the story as a rather na├»ve nun who first draws Sister Beauvier’s suspicions toward Father Flynn. The role of an audience’s entry point into a story is usually a thankless one, but Adams finds countless opportunities to show off her great range. She provides most of the levity of the film with her childlike innocence, but it is her character that also experiences the most growth. She is the monkey in the middle of Beauvier’s and Flynn’s power struggle, and Adams makes it easy to see why it is so hard to choose sides without concrete proof.

Viola Davis (the “Jesse Stone” TV movies), however, conveys all the emotional range and great power of performance in one single scene. She appears as Mrs. Miller, mother of the boy with whom Flynn is suspected of having an inappropriate relationship. Sister Beauvier approaches the subject of the suspected abuse with great frankness, but Davis’s reaction to the nun’s suspicions might seem unmotherly. Davis’s emotional reaction does more than just deal with the surface subject presented to her. In her face we can see all the unspoken issues of the film—the racial implications, the historical impact such a scandal would have upon the civil rights movement, and the socio-economic realities minorities have to face when confronting such monumental issues of equality. Davis’s performance had me convinced that should her character learn that this great nation has elected a black man to the office of President, a slight smile of relief would pass over her expression.

Perhaps focusing on the performances of “Doubt” is the wrong approach in trying to express what a great movie it is. The performances are sure to draw all attention to this film as awards season comes into full swing. Indeed four of the five Golden Globe nominations “Doubt” has garnered are for the four performances discussed in this review. John Patrick Shanley certainly deserves just as much praise for his script and direction. But, acting is what I know best, and is a subject I consciously avoid in my reviews. It was one I couldn’t ignore in consideration of this movie. This is one of the best films of 2008.

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