Miramax // 2008 // 103 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Jennifer Malkowski (Retired) // April 7th, 2009
"There is no evidence. There are no witnesses. But for one, there is no doubt."
Miramax baited its Oscar hooks this year with showcase performances in the hand-wringing moral drama Doubt. And, indeed, it reeled in four acting nominations -- one for each of the film's principle cast members. While it is engaging to watch Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman face off and overtly flex their acting muscles, with strong support from Amy Adams and Viola Davis, the film's story is far less satisfying. What writer/director John Patrick Shanley has to say about the title concept is perhaps not as profound as he hopes. Appropriately, he also seems to doubt the story's suitability for the screen rather than the stage -- and it shows.
The acting showdown Doubt builds up to involves Meryl Streep (The Hours) playing Sister Aloysius, a nun/principal who aggressively lords over her Bronx Catholic school in 1964. Sister Aloysius is a woman of certainty, not doubt, and she feels only the former when she decides that a priest at the church, Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman, Synecdoche, New York), has made sexual advances on the school's only black student, Donald Miller. As the inevitable confrontation between the affable priest and the severe nun simmers, a younger nun who has witnessed some of Flynn and Donald's interactions, Sister James (Amy Adams, Junebug), tries to decide where the truth lies. Meanwhile, Donald's mother (Viola Davis, Far From Heaven) works to make sure her son isn't caught in the crossfire.
Among different types of upcoming films, adaptations inspire the greatest crises of faith in audiences. Regardless of whether the source material is a novel, a comic book, a video game, or in this case a play, any adaptation raises certain kinds of doubts. The primary question on viewers' minds is usually: will the film stay true to the original, in script and casting? But sometimes these crises of faith afflict event the creators themselves, plaguing them with worries that a film adaptation might not even be a good idea; that this story better told through its original medium. In Doubt's case, Shanley doesn't admit to many of those worries in his commentary track or interviews, and yet we see evidence of medium-motivated insecurities throughout the film. As if needing to justify why the story should be retold on film, Shanley and his crew throw in some flashy cinema-specific elements, the most egregious of which are a number of canted angles (a.k.a., shots where the camera's all tilted to one side), most of which are unmotivated and all of which are distracting. In addition to the cinematographic tricks, Shanley also oversaturates his film with audiovisual metaphors and mood-enhancers: a big thunder storm booms outside as Sister Aloysius and Father Flynn argue, a howling wind intrudes into many scenes to remind us of sweeping cultural changes, and a cat is brought into the school to catch a mouse making trouble there. The overemphasis is bad enough, but Shanley also feels the need to directly explain these signifiers in the script itself, as Sister Aloysius makes an obvious remark about the winds bringing change, and another about how one needs a cat (meaning her) can catch a mouse (meaning Flynn). Shanley's insecurities seep through his overdone style and writing here, undermining what he tries to accomplish with the subtler performances of his cast. Though I haven't seen or read the play, I suspect after seeing the film that the stage is a slightly better venue for this story than the screen.
That being said, this adaptation does bring mass audiences some great acting in lovely, cinematic close-ups. Though neither Streep nor Hoffman deliver their very best performances in Doubt -- perhaps not even their best this year -- they both inhabit their characters beautifully and keep the audience consistently engaged. From the very first scene, Hoffman conveys Father Flynn's tortured soul while keeping his exterior persona warm and likeable. He doesn't oversell it -- and if he did, he would sabotage the film's title feeling -- but gives us just enough to accept a variety of possible interpretations for his troubled psyche. Despite Flynn's kindness, Hoffman also hints at his sexism and entitlement nicely, reminding us once in a while of the film's interesting theme of gendered power in the church. Streep takes a few more risks in her role than Hoffman does in his, allowing Sister Aloysius' stereotypical control-freak tendency to define the character for much of the film, and also boiling over into a tirade of dramatic righteousness -- or maybe self-righteousness -- during the climax. From any other actress, these flares of drama and superficial stereotypes would feel overdone, but Streep manages to contrast them to quieter, subtler moments of psychological insight, keeping Sister Aloysius a complex character rather than a caricature.
In the supporting cast, Davis generated big buzz for her turn as Mrs. Miller, despite being on screen for less than fifteen minutes. She's quite good in this role that requires a lot of emotion, but I'm not sure I saw what all the fuss was really about. When I expressed this opinion to a friend who teaches acting, she pointed out, "Yeah, but her nose runs in that scene. You can't fake that." Fair enough. Adams has a lot more screen time than Davis, and performs admirably in a part that is less showy and less rich than Streep's or Hoffman's. She basically just has to play kind, nervous, and uncertain for the film's 103-minute duration, but she does so very effectively. She exudes a genuine sweetness that is remarkably appealing, as in a scene in which she jumps a bit too eagerly at the suggestion of including a secular song in the Christmas pageant. "Or 'Frosty the Snowman!'" she practically shouts, prompting a very amusing lecture from Sister Aloysius about why that song is heretical. As Streep says of her colleague in an interview, "There are very few people who are young actors who can convey being truly innocent -- being really the untrammeled snow. She can do that." Adams proved that thoroughly in Enchanted and she reinforces the point here. Also, unlike Enchanted, Doubt gives Adams the opportunity to really convince us that she can keep our attention without her fantastic hair and perfect makeup. There's no question that she's still very pretty here, but the bonnet and the lack of makeup -- or, more likely, the substantial makeup that makes it look like she's not wearing makeup -- allow us to experience her craft without the distraction of her overwhelming hotness. Not that I usually mind that particular distraction...
Lastly, Shanley adds one major interesting thing to Doubt on top of these performances: a setting in a fascinating era, that is nicely rendered in the film. The action takes place in 1964, a year after President Kennedy's assassination and around the time that the rigorous conformity of the '50s gave way to the '60s spirit of liberation and uncertainty. Those years were also the beginning of tremendous change in the Catholic church, as nuns came under pressure from the Vatican to modernize and humanize their austere and formal ways of life and modes of interaction. Even if he overdoes it with his "winds of change," Shanley uses this historical backdrop very effectively to augment what is otherwise a mostly timeless story about morality.
In terms of the Blu-ray release, Miramax does a more than adequate job with this disc -- though I don't think these types of images and sounds justify a Blu-ray purchase for most viewers. The standard DVD should suffice, and the bonus materials on each are the same. Picture quality on the Blu-ray version is exceptionally crisp, with the dark dresses and bonnets of the nuns standing out sharply against the colorful walls of the school or the gray autumn sky. You can see the fine detail of the individual leaves blowing around the windy courtyard, and just about every pore on Hoffman's face. The only flaw I noticed in visual presentation was a bit too much grain in some, but not most, of the scenes -- it seemed most pronounced when Sister Aloysius takes a walk with Mrs. Miller. Indeed, the visual shortcomings of the film originate in the cinematography and mise-en-scène, as mentioned above, and not in the digital transfer. The audio is presented through a DTS-HD Master Audio track, though I hardly think such a quiet and aurally subdued film really needs one. Howard Shore's contemplative score is nicely rendered here, and well balanced with speech and noise. Perhaps you'll want the pristine audio for when Streep finally lets loose near the film's end, and you will notice occasional subwoofer engagement when the unnecessary thunder claps.
Special features are composed of four featurettes and a commentary track with Shanley. "From Stage to Screen" is a 19-minute making-of documentary that concentrates on the process of adapting the play into a film. I've already criticized that part of the process above, but Shanley's explanation of his motivations did make me a bit more forgiving. In "The Cast of Doubt," we get 14 minutes of an Entertainment Weekly interview with Streep, Hoffman, Davis and Adams. This one is worth watching, especially to see the least established cast member, Viola Davis, holding her own in the conversation and even teasing Meryl Streep! Streep laughs it off amicably, and actually her own insights about the story and how it would be received are quite interesting. You can tell that she's quite thoughtful about her projects when she talks about seeing the film and thinking about her own tendency to be judgmental, then says she realized that would be a difficult aspect for critics -- because they are judgmental. Would they see themselves in it? "No!" Streep thinks. Point taken, Ms. Streep. "Scoring Doubt" gives us five minutes on the film's music, while the fascinating "The Sisters of Charity" presents six minutes of interviews with real nuns from the period -- including the one Shanley based the Sister James character on -- talking about the changes the church went through at that time and how they feel about those changes today.
Moviegoers who value good acting above all else should thoroughly enjoy Doubt, despite its audiovisual and conceptual imperfections. These weaknesses certainly won't ruin the film for anyone -- but they may call into question those Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar nominations.
Only true fans need purchase the Blu-ray edition, as this particular film doesn't really need such an amped-up audiovisual presentation.
I'll render a "not guilty" verdict. But I have my doubts.
Review content copyright © 2009 Jennifer Malkowski; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Portuguese)
Running Time: 103 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Official Site