No Doubt, Streep and Hoffman Are at the Top of Their Games
- 2008 12 Dec
DVD Release Date: April 7, 2009
Theatrical Release Date: December 12, 2008 (limited)
Rating: PG-13 (for thematic material)
Run Time: 104 min.
Director: John Patrick Shanley
Actors: Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Viola Davis, Alice Drummond, Joseph Foster
“If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him. But when he asks, he must believe and not doubt, because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind” (James 1:5-6).
“Be merciful to those who doubt” (Jude 1:22).
“I have my certainty!”—Sister Alouysis Beauvier, Doubt
Doubt is a tricky subject for Christians. Jesus challenges his followers to believe in the power of God, and never to doubt (Matthew 14:31, Matthew 21:21), while James (James 1:5-6) contrasts true belief with doubt. Yet Jude tells us to have mercy on those who doubt (Jude 1:22). The challenge for the believer is to live boldly in matters of revealed truth, but humbly in areas where we must rely heavily on our fallen human reasoning.
Doubt, a stage play set in 1964 and written by John Patrick Shanley that has now been adapted by the same writer into a powerful film, rests on the certainty of Sister Alouysis Beauvier (Meryl Streep), a nun and an educator who rules her school through withering stares and feigned omnipotence. She relies on her suspicions to root out wrongdoers—whether students or teachers—and she encourages the other nuns at the school to follow her lead. When Sister James (Amy Adams) expresses concerns about her students’ behavior during class, Sister Alouysis advises her to put a framed picture of the Pope on the blackboard. That way, Sister Alouysis explains, the young teacher will be able to see her students reflected in the glass of the framed photo and surprise them by reacting to their misbehavior while her back is turned.
“It’s my job to outshine the foxes in cleverness,” she says, as she weighs how to handle a brewing scandal: A priest at the school, Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman), has befriended the school’s first black student, Donald Muller (Joseph Foster), but their relationship has raised questions. After Father Flynn calls Joseph out of Sister James’ class and the boy returns with alcohol on his breath, Sister James gingerly broaches the subject with Sister Alouysis, who sees it as suggestive of improper advances from Father Flynn toward Donald.
Sister James, sensing the direction Sister Alouysis is taking her comments, tries to rephrase her concern, but it’s too late. The charge against Father Flynn turns out to be the latest dustup in a battle of wills between the younger priest, who advocates changes in the Catholic church, and Sister Alouysis, whose traditionalism extends to the belief that the song “Frosty the Snowman” is “magical” and should be banned from the airwaves. Sister James’ circumstantial case becomes, in Sister Alouysis’ eyes, confirmation that Father Flynn must be sent away, but Sister James sees right through her motives: “You just don’t like him,” she tells the older nun.
It’s left to Sister Alouysis to apply to Father Flynn her well-honed technique of extracting confessions from those she suspects of wrongdoing. When her attempt to find corroboration of the charges from Donald’s mother (Viola Davis) leads to an unexpected revelation, Sister Alouysis presses her case against Flynn with even greater fervency—“I have my certainty!” she exclaims. Her inquisition results in more than one surprise revelation.
Streep dominates Doubt in the role of Sister Alouysis. It’s another remarkably precise performance from the great actress, whose character is convinced that her stern temperament and humorlessness are helping to preserve her school—and her church—against a tide of change that she finds unsettling. Hoffman as Father Flynn is equal to Streep’s performance, giving sermons about the sins of gossip and intolerance in the wake of Sister Alouysis’ hostility. Director Shanley, with the inestimable help of the brilliant cinematographer Roger Deakins, has smoothly transitioned his play from stage to screen.
Although set in 1964, Doubt has clear relevance to the issues challenging the Catholic church—and other branches of Christendom—today. How fast should we hold to tradition? Which changes to devotional life are for the best, and which aren’t? How do we deal with corrupt authority figures in the church, and how can we be certain when such corruption actually exists?
“Doubt can be a bond as powerful and sustaining as certainty,” Father Flynn tells his parishioners, and yet he also reassures them: “When you are lost, you are not alone.” The power of Doubt is in showing how our sense of moral certainty can be misguided. It’s a story that lingers in the mind long after the final credits have rolled.
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- Smoking/Drinking: A boy puts a cigarette in his mouth, but we don’t see him light it; priests smoke and drink; a young boy is said to have had alcohol on his breath and is suspected of drinking altar wine.
- Language/Profanity: One or two instances of foul language.
- Sex/Nudity: A priest is accused of improper sexual contact with a young boy; a mother suggests that God gave her son a certain sexual preference.
- Violence: A mother says that her son’s father beats the boy.