Dir: John Patrick Shanley
Cert: PG-13 • US: 104 min • Mirimax • London Lesbian & Gay Film Choice
Doubt is a film driven by character: two characters who are already formed – the gentle Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffmann) and the resident dragon, Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Meryl Streep) – and one character who is formed by the events to which she bears witness – Sister James (Amy Adams). The film is written and directed by John Patrick Shanley, who is also the author of the original stage-play. His singular vision stamps an identity onto the film, both thematically and visually, that is as strong as the two leading characters.
Doubt is set in 1964. The opening scene shows Father Flynn delivering a sermon on doubt. His words and his manner reflect a man of empathy. No sooner is this established than Shanley introduces Sister Aloysius, who is shown walking down the side of the pews in a bid to establish order amongst the more unruly children. All that is seen is the back of her habit as she thwacks and chastises. When the camera finds her face there is a jolt: Aloysius has a pinched mouth, and a pinched face that is so white as to be almost translucent. She is petrifying.
Meryl Streep is one of those rare actors whose presence is commanding, superlative one could say, in everything that she does. She is like Ian McKellen in this. To listen to her talk about Doubt is to listen to someone who understands the film on every level and not just her part in it. And her part in it is that of the unwavering voice of authority, of discipline, of tradition. As the headmistress of the school at which Flynn is the priest she exercises this from the first frame.
The opening sermon is the catalyst for the plot. It alerts Aloysius to the more untraditional approach of Flynn and she in turn alerts the other sisters to keep an eye out.
Amy Adams’ character, Sister James, is the lynch-pin because she is the link between the audience and the other characters. She is the one who is uncomfortable in this world, she is the one who is unsure; and she is, under Aloysius’ prompting, the one who embodies the idea of suspicion and doubt. There is no doubt in Sister Aloysius, and there is no doubt in Father Flynn. Aloysius is reactionary and Flynn is progressive. So when Sister James takes note of Flynn’s relationship with the school’s only black child, Donald Miller, her sense that something could perhaps be wrong somewhere has already been fuelled by Aloysius. And it is to Aloysius that she turns.
Sister Aloysius exhibits no doubt as to what this means. Herein she is on a mission and although there is no evidence she pursues it as if it is written in stone. It is the doubt of Sister James, who is far too gullible, that leads the audience to doubt. Aloysius as a result becomes more human a character, and one who works to defend a boy she assumes is being abused.
The complexity of the situation grows as the evidence either diminishes or becomes more and more circumstantial. This is exacerbated further when sister Aloysius summons the boy’s mother, Mrs Miller (Viola Davis), to a disturbing scene in which the question of the twelve-year-old boy’s emergent sexuality is revealed. It transpires that his father has beaten him for this. The tension between Sister Aloysius and Mrs Miller, both of whom approach the situation with markedly different agendas, is palpable. The boy then becomes a battleground for the preconceptions, prejudices and assumptions of the adults. This onscreen conflict is reflected internally in the viewer who is prompted to both challenge and question every character, every action, every word, leaving them unequivocally with an unsettling sense of doubt.
It is important to note that the two main protagonists exist in a man’s world, and that Father Flynn can be progressive where Sister Aloysious can not. Aloysius is the headmistress, but Flynn is her superior. Shanley demonstrates this rather simply in the contrast between the mealtime of the Sisters and that of Flynn and the Monsignor. The men laugh and the women are silent. The women eat in a well-lit room dominated by the monochromatic hues of whites, blacks and browns, whereas the men are in a room filled with vibrant reds and yellows.
It is Shanley’s use of symbolism and colour in scenes such as this which makes Doubt as visually beautiful as it is thematically disturbing. Shanely brings to the film a vision that so often only comes from the writer himself, and where some have described the approach of this film as rather dogmatic, the staging, like Aloysius, does not waver from its purpose and it explores its theme with vigour.
In the pursuit of wrongdoing one steps away from God. Of course, there is a price.