Starring: Meryl Streep, Amy Adams, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Viola Davis
Rated: PG-13 for thematic material
Running time: 104 minutes
Bottom line: Possibly the best screenplay and best acting of the year
“Doubt” is the ideal Christmas gift for fans of great acting. Philip Seymour Hoffman and Meryl Streep are two of our finest living actors, and this film allows them to spar and dance like two heavyweights.
Sister Aloysius (Streep) rules St. Nicholas Catholic school with an iron fist. Sister James (Amy Adams) is a new, idealistic teacher at the school. And Father Flynn (Hoffman) is a charismatic priest who is also rather new at St. Nicholas.
Set in 1964, the school has recently admitted its first black student. Sisters Aloysius and James become suspicious that Father Flynn is sexually abusing the student, and the conflict of the film is set. Sister Aloysius and Father Flynn duel over the accusation and over Flynn’s position within the school and the church.
Sisters Aloysius and James are perfectly contrasting characters. Aloysius is as cold and hard as they come. She loathes ballpoint pens and bemoans the decline in penmanship among the students. Adams is a naive first-year teacher who is patient and understanding to a fault.
Between these two nuns is Father Flynn. He is young as priests go, and his politics and manner with students are what he would call progressive. Sister Aloysius sees his behavior as inappropriate and threatening.
The balance between the two nuns keeps the film from swaying our opinion of Father Flynn one way or the other. We are constantly reminded of the film’s title, for as soon as we decide whether Flynn is guilty or innocent, something makes us doubt that decision.
The scenes in which Sister Aloysius confronts Father Flynn directly are brilliantly written, brilliantly acted and riveting. It’s only words flying across the room, but these scenes are as enthralling as any fight to the death ever filmed.
Surprisingly, though, the film doesn’t belong entirely to Hoffman and Streep. Viola Davis, as the mother of the black student, has exactly one speaking scene. Yet her performance is so strong, so nuanced and powerful that she will garner major nominations for supporting-actress awards.
Adams would also be a shoe-in for a supporting actress Oscar nomination, if Davis didn’t outshine her so brightly.
You may fear the film will become a festival of Catholic-bashing, but I assure you it never does. In fact, the film finds the beauty in some of the simple basic rituals that form the foundation of church and parochial school life.
Besides, “Doubt” isn’t really about the Catholic church. That institution only provides the setting and the set of rules by which these characters must abide. The film is about exactly what the title suggests: doubt about one’s most fundamental convictions.
Anyone who simply loves to see great actors working with outstanding writing should revel in this film. We don’t walk away from the film remembering the cinematic style. You may even forget that you just watched a film. What lingers is the wonderful experience of witnessing actors in top form.
I rarely get to use the word “greatness,” but this film deserves it. To watch “Doubt” is to watch acting greatness in motion.
Jeff Marker is a media studies professor at Gainesville State College.