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: Doubt (2008)  ( 1511 )
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This post gets Agnew's stamp of approval!

« : January 25, 2009, 05:39:48 PM »

I didn't see a thread devoted to this film anywhere, and RR's minireview convinced me to start a thread.

Here's the Grog Blog review:
Well, here is the first of what I hope to be many (or at least several) reviews of this year's Oscar-contending films. Doubt exceeded my expectations and proved to be an extraordinary film, driven by powerful writing and acting.

Adapted by John Patrick Shanley from his own play, Doubt tells the story of the goings-on at a Catholic school in the early '60s. A poor black boy, Donald Miller (Joseph Foster) joins the school, and is taken under the wing of the kindly Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the parish parson. All goes well, until a strange and ambiguous incident convinces Sister James (Amy Adams), the kindly (and naive) novice nun and school teacher, that Father Flynn is having inappropriate relations with Donald. She tells her superior, the stern but well-intentioned Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep) of her suspicions; Aloysius then becomes convinced of the Father's guilt and launches a fierce campaign to relieve him of his position. Is Father Flynn guilty? And if he isn't, what lies behind Sister Aloysius' obsession?

Doubt manages to admirably transcend its stage roots and become appropriately cinematic. Shanley's direction is striking, with wonderful use of cinematography and lighting to create an atmosphere both friendly and foreboding. It takes a lot to make a piece of theatre work as a movie, but the gifted Shanley is more than up to the task. It treats Catholicism seriously and with respect; it doesn't outright advocate religion, but like Fred Zinnemann's The Nun's Story, it gives an honest and decidedly fair portrait of a Church struggling to merge traditional values with modern sensibilities, through a trio of fascinating and ambiguous characters. (Shanley, though, has some fun with audience expectations about nuns and Catholicism unlike Zinnemann's grim film, such as the scene where Aloysius decries Frosty the Snowman as heretical. I always knew there was a reason I never liked that guy!)

What really makes the film work are the screenplay and the performances. Shanley's script is wonderfully written, with sharp, biting, intelligent and economic dialogue and wonderfully efficient pacing, character development and storytelling. The story gains momentum as it goes along, not reliant on overwrought dialogue, ridiculous plot contrivances and silly Macguffins but the actions and thoughts of the characters. The scene where Sister Aloysius confronts Donald's mother (the wonderful Viola Davis) with her suspicions is a case in point: What's going to happen seems obvious from the get-go, but Shanley plays with audience expectations and builds the scene in an unexpected direction. The movie's biggest fault is a clunky, obvious last line which seems jarringly out of place, but it's a forgivable flaw considering the whole. Other than that final false moment, the script and story never once feels contrived, forced, self-conscious or reaching for profundity; it feels like the actions and speech of real humans, and that's the highest complement one can pay to a playwright (or filmmaker).

That Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman give extraordinary performances should come as a surprise to no one, as these are arguably the two most acclaimed actors of this generation. Hoffman probably has the weakest of the three main roles; we learn much less about Father Flynn than his co-stars, beyond that he's a nice guy whose progressive beliefs and open-mindedness make him a natural target for Sister Aloysius's suspicion. The question of his guilt is left largely unresolved (even though he all but admits it late in the film), and his character's ambiguity is both intriguing and frustrating. Still, Hoffman handles the role with aplomb, making the most out of a potentially meager role, and his big confrontation with Streep is alone worth the price of admission. If there's one actor who make dramatic sparks out of the weakest material, it's Philip Seymour Hoffman.

Meryl Streep is even more impressive. Her Sister Aloysius is introduced as an almost caricature stern and cruel Nun, whacking children who fall asleep in the pew and confiscating candy and radios, but almost immediately we begin to see cracks in her facade: an admitted acidic sense of humor, affection towards her fellow nuns - she seems a good enough person within the confines of her profession. More importantly, however, we learn she's a woman driven by personal demons, and not cliched crap like sexual desires or what have you. Although the film never reveals precisely what's tormenting her, it drops intriguing hints - a tragically-ended marriage, a "mortal sin" she admits to having committed, her loud complaints about the male-dominated Church hierarchy - which show she's a damaged woman with a troubled past. She's absolutely convinced what she's doing is right, but is that a basis on which to ruin a man's life and career? And why should it matter to anyone else - a point her scene with Donald's mother drives home? Aloysius is not a cruel woman with an evil agenda, but her motivations are ambiguous to her audience - and even to herself - to a degree that leaves her completely open to interpretation. Unlike Hoffman, Streep has a character that be fascinating in and of herself, but that in no way denigrates her achievement.

The biggest revelation for me, though, is Amy Adams. After years of toiling in bit parts (Catch Me If You Can) and independent films (Junebug), Adams has just recently emerged as a bona fide movie star with her roles in Enchanted, Charlie Wilson's War and Miss Pettigrew Lives For Day. Adams' winsome charm and luminous beauty make her a natural star, but Doubt proves that she's a damned fine actress as well. She maintains elements of her usual persona in the early going, but it's appropriate to the character; Sister James is a poster child for the Catholic nunnery, an improbably innocent and cheery soul who believes the Sacraments to the letter and has never known anything else. She only wants to do what's right, but confronted with Sister Aloysius's personal implosion and Flynn's possible guilt, it becomes nigh-impossible for her to see which way to go. She's the only three of the characters who really undergoes any development, as Flynn remains an enigma and Aloysius's character is revealed rather than formed by the story, and the actress goes a long way in selling the character. Adams gives a wonderful performance, playing it for its strengths and she remains convincing throughout; the very fact that she's able to hold her own against Streep and Hoffman is testament enough to her achievement.

All things considered, Doubt is an extraordinary film. It gets an 9/10 and is my number 2 of 2008 so far. Now #3 due to Slumdog

« : July 06, 2010, 04:57:26 AM Dust Devil »

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« #1 : January 16, 2013, 07:39:13 AM »

Stubbornness proves to be a virtue in the end. Extraordinary performances.


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