John Patrick Shanley brings his thought provoking play to the big screen in 2008’s best picture, in my book, Doubt. The Academy likely shied away from the controversial content, likely because it doesn’t make it clear this priest must have done what he’s accused of doing. Many of the actors received deserved nominations, but the film was generally snubbed in the final verdict. While I enjoyed Slumdog Millionaire, for Doubt to not even get the Best Picture nomination is a crime.
Doubt is a case of art imitating art imitating life. John Patrick Shanley based the character of Sister James on a real sister that he knew as a child. He grew up attending Catholic school, and Sister James was one of the nuns he knew during that experience. While the character was based on something real, the events were not. He took this familiar character and developed the fictional story of Doubt around her. This story became a play. W hen it came to adapting the successful play into a movie, John Patrick Shanley took on the job nearly singlehandedly. Now, I’m not a huge fan of these one man writer, director, producer affairs. The infliction of a single voice on a film often results in a movie that plays too much like an inside joke. Nothing is more tedious to watch than a person laughing at their own jokes. So, I went into Doubt expecting that recipe for disaster. Much to my surprise, I discovered that there really are rare exceptions to any rule. Doubt is that rare exception, without a doubt.
Meryl Streep is Sister Aloysius. She is a very conservative sister who can’t let go of the strict traditions of the past. She has taken a strong disliking to the new parish priest, Father Flynn. Flynn is a progressive priest who embraces the new changes the Church has undergone under the recent Second Vatican Council. The film is set in the early 1960’s shortly after the Pope John XXXIII’s proclamation. She takes exception to the fact that he writes with a ball point pen, takes sugar in his tea, and likes Frosty the Snowman, which she believes promotes such ideas as witchcraft to children. She admonishes the nuns under her supervision to watch the priest for anything suspicious. When young Sister James (Adams) calls a particular incident to her attention, she latches on to the information in an effort to bring down the priest. It appears that Father Flynn has taken a young boy under his wing. The boy, Donald Miller (Foster) is the Catholic school’s first black student and not the most welcome young lad. Father Flynn’s special attention is at first interpreted by Sister James as suspicious when Donald returns to her class from a conference with the priest acting considerably distraught. Now Sister Aloysius suspects the boy was molested. She confronts the priest and engages in a brutal campaign to have him exposed, or at least removed from the parish. All the while Sister James becomes more and more convinced she has misjudged the situation and set in motion a terrible injustice that she is now powerless to contain. Her doubt wears heavily on her soul.
I, like Shanley, am a product of the northeastern United States Catholic school system. From first grade through high school graduation I spent 12 years in Catholic schools. Perhaps it is that background that makes me uniquely capable of appreciating just how accurately Shanley portrays that culture. Everything about this film held an eerily familiar fascination for me. From the sets, which include the actual locations he went to church and school, I was able to see glimpses of my own parish growing up. Even the inside of the church reminded me of Holy Rosary Parish in Reading, Pennsylvania, where I spent my first 18 years. The visuals are dead on accurate. The rest of the formula is to be found in remarkable casting. Philip Seymour Hoffman as Father Flynn reminds me of so many priests I have come to know over the years. There’s a gentleness behind his eyes and a soft-spoken nature in his speech, even when angered, that I’ve come to know throughout my own life. Both Meryl Streep and Amy Adams deliver the two most crucial traits of the nuns I grew up with in school. All of them have a little of both inside of them. The disciplined and fervent dedication to their faith exists inside of Sister Aloysius, while the enthusiasm and love of their work and pupils resides in Sister James. They are two extreme examples of these characteristics. Sister Aloysius reminds me of a Sister Florence, or Sister Flo, as we used to call her, but never to her face. She was a very traditionalist teacher and nun. You didn’t mess with Sister Flo if you valued the skin on your knuckles. Still, she was an excellent teacher, and as quick as she’d yank you by your ears or smack your hands with a yardstick, she’d go through the bowels of Hell itself to defend you if you were in need. I was impressed by one set of scenes that demonstrated the very different lives the nuns and priests lived in 1964. They are meal scenes. In the convent, the meal is a modest one eaten almost entirely in silence. At the rectory, however, the priests are enjoying large cuts of meat and wine, all the while smiling and joking with each other. Again, I’ve participated in meals at both in the early 1970’s and man, did he ever nail the contrast. It is these shared experiences that allowed me to relate so completely with this movie. If you want an authentic period and culture piece, there have been few better. It all boils down to something that Shanley could not completely control, the performances of his cast. As I’ve already alluded to, the performances are outstanding. The movie is, at its heart, a three part character study. If you’re a fan of good theater on the movie screen, you won’t want to pass up Doubt.
The play is mostly an inside affair. Shanley was smart enough to realize that he needed to expand the horizons of his play if he wanted an engaging film. I’m impressed that he was able to make some drastic changes to his own work in order to deliver the kind of powerful movie experience that he did in fact deliver. The cinematography is far more complicated and creative than to simply shoot a play on film. Shanley expertly used his cameras to take this limited environment and make it appear even larger than it really was.
It’s about time that Hollywood brings this element of doubt into the subject of priests molesting children. I have to admit that it really angers me when people assume that this is an epidemic in the priesthood. Certainly there are cases, and I don’t mean to diminish the absolute abhorrence of those incidents, but it’s not confined to priests. Teachers, truck drivers, contractors, and even government officials have been guilty of this kind of abuse. It is no more epidemic in priests than anywhere else. I’ve even had family members display this kind of prejudice. I have had the pleasure of spending real quality time with priests as a child. I went on field trips even went with my pastor once to spend a day with his mother a couple of hours away from home. I’ve slept in the rectory when my duties gave me only a couple of hours between tasks at Christmas. Never in all of those encounters has a priest acted inappropriately. Kudos to Shanley for presenting such a balanced look into what has become a McCarthyesque witch-hunt visited upon a noble profession.
Doubt is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1. Colors are desasturated, and one gets the sense of a typical northeast winter day. I’ve known many of them growing up in Eastern Pennsylvania. The image might be dull in color, but it is crisp. That isn’t to say color can’t peek through the almost monochromatic palate. Contrast is above average as displayed by the stark red door of the church set against a dreary rainy night outside. Black levels are good, but there is more than a hint of compression artifact here that makes the high definition version a much better image than this standard DVD.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 track is very good, rivaling the Blu-ray uncompressed version. What perhaps impressed me most with the surrounds wasn’t the ambient sounds as much as the ambient effects. I’ve spoken before about how so much audio doesn’t seem to “fit” these days. That couldn’t be further from the truth here. When Father Flynn belts out his accusatory homily in the church, you can hear his voice bouncing off the marble pillars and stained-glass windows. Just as important is the conference in Sister Aloysius’s office. Here the sound is confined and smothering. The dialog becomes as close to your face as the characters who are talking. The surround elements also work well with rain and thunder elements, becoming very convincing. Your subs won’t get a lot of work, but the overall effect is quite realistic.
There is a rather engaging Commentary Track by John Patrick Shanley. This track is well worth the second pass of the film it requires. Shanley is passionate about his subject, and it shows. You’ll hear him relate his real world experiences and provide a ton of background to everything you’re watching. The track will actually improve your appreciation for the film.
From Stage To Screen: (19:06) The cast and crew talk about their experiences with both the play and the film. Most of them had seen the play prior to their taking on the movie. You meet the real Sister James. There’s plenty of behind the scenes footage in this excellent feature.
The Cast Of Doubt: (13:50) It’s an Entertainment Weekly sit-down with the four leads of the film. They answer questions from Dave Karger. There are also film clips, but I really found them rather out of place and distracting.
Scoring Doubt: (4:40) Howard Shore is one of the best composers in the business. I also love watching these orchestra recording sessions.
Sisters Of Charity: (6:28) I’m not familiar with this order, but you can be now. Meet the real nuns from the order as they talk about the evolution of their calling. They provide a wonderful sense of the history of their order and all of the changes they’ve seen. Nuns rarely wear habits and gowns anymore. Sister James shows us a picture of herself from 1961, and she looks remarkably like Amy Adams. I’m sure that image was a big factor for Shanley when she was cast.
If you’re looking for the typical hateful demonization of the Catholic Church, you will be disappointed. If you are hoping to engage gleefully in a priest scandal or images of pedophilia, look elsewhere. This film examines the characteristics of Faith and Doubt and how very similar the two concepts really are. The movie will take you on a very intimate journey through conscience. It’s not about right or wrong. It’s not about good and evil. You won’t get a satisfactory climax if you want concrete answers. We never know if Father Flynn is guilty of the actions for which he is accused. I believe the film leads you down the path that he was not. You are given the freedom to come to your own conclusions. In the end it doesn’t even matter if he did it or not. What matters is that “Doubt can be a bond as powerful and sustaining as certainty”.