Saturday, January 03, 2009

Streep and Hoffman deliver, did you 'doubt' they would?

"Doubt," based on a Pultizer Prize winning play by John Patrick Shanley, takes on issues of religion and morality in its story of a nun who accuses a priest of indecent behavior with a black student in 1964.

Shanley has adapted and directed his play for the screen and he has some of the best working actors at his disposal. Meryl Streep stars as Sister Aloysius, who is cold and intolerant and put in stark contrast with Philip Seymour Hoffman ("Capote") as Father Flynn, who is warm and open.

Flynn has a protective relationship with Donald (Joseph Foster), the first and only black student at the Catholic school. When Sister James (Amy Adams) sees some things that could be construed as suspicious behavior it sets Aloysius on a mission to remove Flynn. She is absolutely certain of his guilt.

Flynn's guilt or innocence is part of a larger ideological struggle. Aloysius is a firm believer in strict authority and emotional distance from the students and the parish. Flynn believes in compassion and love and that the church should he seen as part of people's families. There's an implication that this difference in opinion is Aloysius' true motive.

The acting is exceptional. Streep and Hoffman go toe-to-toe in several scenes, and the verbal back and forth is enthralling. Streep is not a likable figure in this film and she makes it difficult to be on her side, even if she is right. Hoffman seems so kind it is hard to see him doing anything wrong.

Viola Davis as Donald's mother has only one scene with Streep, but it is a powerful performance that raises even more questions regarding the situation. Streep is a formidable acting presence, particularly in this role, and Davis holds her own and leaves a last impression.

Adams, who has been such a warm and sunny presence in moves like "Enchanted" and "Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day," brings that same brightness to Sister James, but in a more dramatic way than her previous work. Sister James gets caught in the middle of Aloysius and Flynn's struggle as Aloysius takes her under her wing and attempts to alter her sweet nature.

Critics are not suppose to review audience reaction. It is the quality of the film itself that matters, but the crowd I saw "Doubt" with had a interesting and revealing reaction. "Doubt" is being advertised and reviewed as a hard-hitting drama, but when I saw the film the theater was often filled with boisterous laughter.

The film is well-made, so these are not unintentional laughs. There are moments that are genuinely funny, especially involving Aloysius' rigid behavior. Is the film meant to be a comedy dealing with serious issues or a drama with some humor? That likely depends on your perspective or mood when you see it. Either way, the laughs are there to ease the tension attached to such a prickly subject matter. People laugh when they are uncomfortable and nervous, and Shanley's script plays on that impulse.

As a director, Shanley's only slip-up is his occasional use of tilted angles, which are most likely supposed to represent that nothing is as it appears or that the motives of characters are skewed. Whatever the underlining meaning was, the effect is more distracting than anything else.

For the most part, Shanley keeps the visuals simple and puts a focus on the dialogue. The film poses hard questions and doesn't offer easy answers. If Flynn does have a dark secret, does that mean he isn't still a good man? It is never clear what, if anything, happened between Flynn and Donald.

Material like this could easily slip into melodrama or become sensationalistic and shamelessly manipulative. Shanley's dialogue is smart and cutting without being trite or condescending. This is a thought-provoking film full of ambiguity that is sure to stir much post-film discussion.

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