Skip to content

February 21, 2009

Movie Review – Doubt (2008)


Doubt (2008)

Writer-director John Patrick Shanley’s much anticipated follow-up to Joe Versus the Volcano is Doubt, a film based on Shanley’s own play that takes place at a Catholic school in New York during the 1960s. Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) befriends a young black boy, but Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep) is convinced that there is impropriety in their relationship.

The strength of this film is that the characters do not devolve into archetypes. Though the film tries to vilify Sister Aloysius at first as the strict nun who pokes children in church to get them to sit up straight, she later shows chinks in the armor which even makes the young impressionable Sister James (Amy Adams) question her accusations.

Father Flynn is a sympathetic character at first, a progressive priest who believes that the church should be friendlier. We later find him to be somewhat boorish and arrogant, but with a twinkle and charm that only Hoffman can deliver. To the film’s credit, the film does not take a firm stance on where our sympathies are supposed to lie.

This is a film that allows actors to shine. The scenes mostly take place in static interiors and we do not have any of that pesky cinematography to get in the way of the dialogue. Streep and Hoffman do not overplay their characters and truly turn them into people full of subtleties and contradictions. Adams has perfected the art of playing the doe-eyed innocent, but she still infuses the character with complexity. The other actor of note is Viola Davis, who plays the boy’s mother. She only has lines in one scene where Sister Aloysius asks her to come to the school to discuss Father Flynn, but the scene really is the crux of the film.

As I hinted at earlier, the film is not terribly interesting visually. The art direction and costumes are all serviceable, but the camera work is particularly dull. Establishing shots inside the cathedral are not a substitute for cinematography. Also, inexplicably, the camera is held at an angle for certain shots at seemingly random intervals.

You can easily see how this film was once a play. All the exposition is handled through dialogue and the visuals do little work to establish anything. And the dialogue is good, but it is highly structured and can occasionally come across as heavy-handed, especially Father Flynn’s sermons about doubt and intolerance. Inside my head, I struck a dramatic chord every time one of the characters said the word “doubt.” Although there are other characters other than the principals, there is a strong feeling that they are irrelevant to the overall plot. Still, the plot is strong and focused and it’s easy to admire a film that does not try too hard to be about more than it is.

3 stars