Saturday, January 3, 2009

"I have doubts. I have such doubts."

Playwright John Patrick Shanley adapted and directed his own Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Doubt for the screen, but the film is trapped in the confines of a stagey setup. Doubt is certainly a delicious showcase of very strong actors delivering riveting performances due to the tension-driven dialogue of Shanley's script, but the film is not quite a full-blown cinematic experience, although the story itself is often dramatic and engrossing. The film plays like a ardent debate between two fierce, persuasive characters. The concluding note is a mist of profound ambiguity that questions the audience on whom they believe based on the evidence provided. But doubt will prevail.

Doubt takes place a year after President John F. Kennedy's assassination. America's spirit has been torn by the fears of uncertainty and a culture captivated by modern ideas of change. St. Nicholas Chuch School is no longer immune to the changes of the outside world and the new priest, Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) wants to see the changes come full circle within the heavily traditional climate of St. Nicholas. Father Flynn is friendly with the students, uses a ballpoint pen, and suggests a secular song for the school's annual Christmas pageant. St. Nicholas is finally changing with the times, thanks to a charismatic reformer at the its core.

While Father Flynn develops a fabulous relationship with all the students, Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep), the universally feared principal of St. Nicholas School, sees Father Flynn as a nemesis and a threat to the very walls of the Catholic church. When the compassionately naive and easily conflicted Sister James (Amy Adams) confides in Sister Aloysius that Father Flynn may have acted inappropriately with the school's first black student, Donald Miller (Joseph Foster), Sister Aloysius takes full advantage of this opportunity to take Father Flynn down--with great certainty in tact.

The performances are uniformly excellent. After four decades, Streep shows that she is still the reigning queen of the film industry, with her complex performance as Sister Aloysius. Sister Aloysius is undeniably cold and stern, but she is a powerful force of nature, accompanied by dry wit, assured judgments, and unyielding confidence. Although he differs in personality, Hoffman's Father Flynn possesses the same inner qualities as Sister Aloysius, which makes their heated conversations a wonder to behold, especially in the head-to-head verbal battles leading up to the finale. Hoffman's Father Flynn holds on to Streep's Sister Aloysius's every word like a calm, biting breeze.

But the true surprise in the cast is Viola Davis, who plays the boy's struggling mother. In a single scene, Davis lets the audience into her hardships at home and her hopes for her son. Nothing can stand in her son's way of future success if she can help it.

Doubt benefits from the finely-tuned performances from its masterful ensemble cast and Shanley's dialogue, but the film is sometimes dull and restrained. After watching Doubt, I wondered if I would admire the cinematic treatment as much if I had already experienced the play on stage. The film has all the bareness of basic theater and doesn't bother to take any risks that go beyond the Dutch angle. But there is an elegance about Doubt, mainly attributed to Roger Deakins' cinematography that paints a blooming yet restricted portrait of a sixties-era Catholic church.

Like another film released in 2008, The Reader, Doubt also dares to ask tough, intense questions attached with its characters' final decisions and the emotional consequences that follow. Doubt tells us that beliefs are rarely not without uncertainty. Despite the film's dismissible theatricality, Shanley directs his story well.

Rating: *** (out of four)


  1. another excellent review, and a movie i definitely want to see(based on the review) - maybe a double bill with 'the reader'. i am relying on your wit and wisdom, marcy.
    M. streep gets better as she gets older, maybe because she always seemed older than she was when she was younger.

  2. a fair review of the movie, though I think I liked its sparseness and understated cinematic tendencies a little bit more... i found it remarkable.

  3. Richard - Thanks for your kind words! I can only try my best... I hope you enjoy both The Reader and Doubt and make sure to tell me what you thought of the films.

    You make an an excellent point about Meryl Streep. After 2006's The Devil Wears Prada she shows that she is capable of delivering a complex, convincing performance based on what could've been a typically one-dimensional villainous stereotype. She shows the same kind of complexity in Doubt.

    Matt - I guess we just have different preferences, eh? But like I said, there is a kind of elegance to the film, due to Deakins' cinematography. I just wanted to see a little more.

  4. did you do a review of 'devil wears prada'? the movie and streep were terrific. how many reviews have you done?. looking for your reviews, i did run into emma the brit's blog, and she seems as much of a movie nutter as you

  5. i just noticed your photo and you look older and more sophisticated than i would have guessed- that is not a bad thing, of course.

  6. I didn't review The Devil Wears Prada. I actually think it's not that great of a film but Streep, Stanley Tucci, and Emily Blunt were all terrific.

    Are you referring to Emma from ALL ABOUT MY MOVIES? I love her film blog to pieces...

    Sorry to disappoint you, but that picture is actually Elizabeth Taylor, not me, haha. I should change it to avoid confusion...or I can just continue to mislead people that I'm as elegant and sophisticated as Ms. Taylor! Oh, I wish...

  7. so, you are not grace kelly either...sigh. you are a little harsh on prada - i knew nothing about it and was very happily surprised and entertained. it was fun, and as you said, some very good performances. i notice you didn't mention anne hathaway, though...did you not like her performance, or what? i thought she
    was adorable. ,maybe i was overly influenced by her physical appearance, and did not discern the lack of nuance, which was no doubt obvious to the sophisticated observer...just kidding.
    oh, and i WAS referring to THAT emma. nice to hear you saying positive things about a rival reviewer and a contemporary.

  8. Anne Hathaway is adorable, but I don't think she's impressed me with any of the performances I've seen.

    I know she's getting Oscar buzz for her performance in Rachel Getting Married which I haven't seen, so I can't judge.

    The problem with her performance in Prada was that she didn't overly convince me of her character's transformation. Hathaway's performance was probably the least interesting thing in the entire film. I didn't care much if she succeeded or not or what price she had to pay for success, etc.

    I don't think movie bloggers (or at least the ones I know of) think of each other as rivals. Just folks with movie blogs, that's all...

  9. fair enough - however, anne's bio. on imdb is extraordinarily impressive. also, have you seen 'havoc'?? i suggested a while back that you might want to watch it - another side of anne h.
    you are no doubt right about
    prada', and i certainly thought anne's boy friend was poorly done -typical dumb b.f.
    i was just kidding about you and emma. i must try to be more serious

  10. Good review, the movie looks alittle weird from the tv spots I have seen. Good performances, but I might have to wait on the DVD version.

  11. with this kind of review it won't be going onto dvd for quite a while. be prepared to wait.

  12. Richard - Havoc does seem pretty interesting. All I really knew about the film is that Anne has a topless scene in it.

    The boyfriend in Devil has to be one of the most boring, dumb boyfriends in cinematic history. Well, at least in the top 50.

    Go ahead and joke around. Don't mind me when I take your jokes too seriously ;) I'm just a little slow sometimes!

    Ricarhd & Farzan - I think Doubt might stay in theaters a little while to strengthen its Oscar chances so the DVD will have to wait. I don't know if it'll get a Best Picture nomination, but nominations for Streep, Hoffman, Davis, and Shanley (for adapted screenplay) are completely plausible.

  13. i hope i can see 'the reader' and 'doubt'. i am off to mexico for a week on friday am. and have all kinds of c..p to do between now and then. oiy weh!

  14. This movie just didn't do it for me. It's not unlike Mamet's Oleanna, only I felt that Oleanna delved a bit deeper in the conflict.

    And Streep saying that line "I have doubts. I have such doubts" really killed it for me. If only she had cried, we would all know what was on her mind.

  15. Richard - Have a good time in Mexico!

    Piper - I agree, the ending is a tad weak, but the central conflict in the film is well-executed enough to keep me mildly interested.

  16. wow what an awesome review!
    can't wait to see this movie. it doesn't come out in aus for a while, so i will just have to wait patiently :)

    i just started my own film/book/music blog.
    i hope that one day my reviews are just as awesome as yours :)

  17. Thank you for stopping by, Vicki! Glad you liked the review and I hope it opens soon in your area.

    I visited your blog and it's quite lovely.

  18. Excellent review, Marcy! I share your same apprehensions about Shanley's choice to keep the film rather stagy but you can't deny that the power of the film lies in its acting. Meryl Streep is at the top of her game right now. She completely owns the film and makes it her biotch. I felt that the film, overall, was a bit too ambiguous for its own good and Shanley's direction was poor, at best.

    And I second Richard's recommendation of Havoc...the film is a bit shoddy but, after Brokeback, it's my favorite Anne Hathaway performance. Plus she shows her breasts 3 times!

  19. but who's counting?
    i'm back from my week in beautiful puerto vallarta. i could live there easily.
    i probably missed themovies,though,
    i mean 'doubt'; and
    the reader'.

  20. the movies are still here... yippee! now if i just can get it together. i seldom actually go to movie theatres because it interferes with my routine...but with 'marcy in the balcony' i may have to rethink my priorities.

  21. - Thanks, James! Meryl Streep really does own this film.

    I still don't understand the love for Anne Hathaway's performance in Brokeback, though.

    - Richard, welcome back! I would love to know how you feel about The Reader and/or Doubt when you do see them. Going to the theaters is pretty inconvenient for me too because I don't have a job or transportation, so that's why I see a lot movies on DVD. So see them whichever way you can--not necessarily in theaters, although that is the best way to experience a movie.

  22. i dont see this film yet, but i really wont, thnx foor moore information about this movie.

  23. marcy - i finally saw 'doubt' at one of our many multiplexes, where all the nominated movies are playing.
    in a word,'bravo'! it is always a joy to watch a well written and well played verbal brawl between consumate male and female actors. this was one of the best i have seen. (i think hepburn and o'toole(?) set the gold standard in
    'lion in winter', but this was magnificent). all of the cast played their roles beautifully, especially the sweet, innocent, and naive amy adams (the spirit of christ in the movie). f i have any complaint, it would be with the ending. the good sister never would have folded -it sort of clanged.
    otherwise - pure delight, and btw, no contest as to who should have gotten the award for best actress.

    wouldn't it be great to see a live,theatrical production of this movie

  24. oops - the movie was based on a play. i didn't know that.

  25. Richard, I really thought all the performances in Doubt was excellent. It's an acting spectacle. Each actor knew how to chew up the scenery.

    But the direction left a lot to be desires for...

    You know, I adore Amy Adams and all her wonderfulness, but she was the "weaker link" in the film. That doesn't mean that she was bad or anything, but she was definitely overshadowed by all the others in this amazing cast.

    I highly respect Kate Winslet's performance in The Reader, but on Oscar night, I found myself secretly wanting Meryl Streep to win the trophy.

  26. What does the last line mean by Sister Aloysius Beauvier "i have doubts, i have such doubts" Is it her faith that she is doubting or that Father Brendan Flynn was actually guilty.

  27. @geecued: I think she was doubting Father Flynn's guilt since she made stuff up to get Flynn to "confess" his wrongdoings.

  28. geecued ...

    Personally, I think it is deliberately ambiguous which is what I liked about this film. Is she doubting Father Flynn's guilt, is she doubting her faith, is she doubting her behaviour (whether or not Flynn was guilty)?

    I think Meryl Streep's performance here was more deaserving of an Oscar than Kate Winslet's in The Reader.

  29. @Maria - The more I think about Doubt and Meryl Streep's performance, in particular, the more I like the movie and the more I think that Streep was far more deserving than Winslet.

    Winslet's performance in The Reader leaves a terrific impression but it's Streep's performance that I found myself rooting for on Oscar night.