Starring Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Amy Adams
Directed by John Patrick Shanley
The priests sit in a warmly lit dining room, a bloody roast on the table alongside the cigarettes and wine. In another wing of St. Nicholas Church, a different kind of meal unfolds, the silent, perfunctory dinner taken by crow-like women in black habits bent over their plates in stern silence.
Such is the divide by gender, but also by hierarchy at the center of the clerical thriller Doubt. Women are the joyless monitors and caretakers in the absorbing, morally treacherous story. And men are the creatives, the wits, the power structure. The nuns of St. Nicholas pour the tea and teach the children, but Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep) sees their duties as larger: to protect her students from the predatory interests of the parish priest.
Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by John Patrick Shanley — who also directs — Doubt comes to the screen with a welcome restraint, relying as much on what is unsaid as on what is said and the kind of stylish visual juxtapositions of those suppers.
One of the most illustrative of the film’s devices is setting: a bleak inner-city Bronx in midwinter. As cold and stoic as any Ingmar Bergman film, the iciness casts a pall on the characters who seem unable to find comfort in the world around them.
Streep is spectacular playing a character who often repels our affection. Her worries seem trite: She is disturbed by the sorry state of penmanship and secular Christmas hymns, and has a profound dislike of the morally corruptive power of sugar. In the early 1960s, she seems to represent a grotesque fear of change and a frightening inflexibility. She is at first glance a far less appealing, judgmental, and stern figure than the likable, progressive Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who wants to take his students on camping trips and offers dating advice over lemonade during informal chat sessions with his male students.
But progressiveness can also mask self-interest. Sister Aloysius is a woman whose outer brittleness occasionally cracks to reveal something more complicated. She embraces tradition, but is also trapped within it. She visibly blanches during a meeting with Father Flynn when he takes her chair behind her desk and expects to be waited on with tea and sugar by the sisters.
The question arises: Is her suspicion of Flynn grounded in fact or in resentment over the privileges he holds over her head?
Sister Aloysius is introduced in Doubt patrolling the aisles of St. Nicholas during morning mass, thumping wayward children and demanding perfect posture and attentiveness. Her performance as the harsh, judgmental school principal is radically contrasted with the school’s lighthearted Sister James (Amy Adams). In a page cribbed from The Sound of Music, Sister James is the blue-eyed babe-in-the-woods whose view of the world is slowly tainted by Sister Aloysius’s suspicion that Father Flynn has made improper advances toward St. Nicholas’s only black student Donald (Joseph Foster).
Sister Aloysius’ doubt about Father Flynn spreads like a virus, infecting Sister James and growing more virulent as time goes on. Amy Adams’ post-Junebug performances have often milked the actress’s wide-eyed innocence enough to make your teeth ache. But Sister James is a more complex innocent, both self-interested in not wanting to see her relationship to God corrupted by doubt, but also fearful for the safety of her children. And her views waver dramatically in the tug of war between Flynn and Aloysius.
Written in 2005, when news of malfeasant priests blazed across the headlines, Doubt concerns a church that protects those at the top of the hierarchy (the priests) and seems less concerned by the complaints of those at the bottom (children and nuns). But Doubt‘s real beauty is its refusal to deliver “the goods”: a sure answer about Father Flynn’s guilt or innocence.
Instead, Shanley takes us inside his characters’ predicament. We wait to know, hold out hope that our own doubts will be assuaged — but that is John Patrick Shanley’s point. We often never get the full truth and the torture is in never being sure.