Some of my best friends are nuns, which may partially account for my unfavorable reactions to Doubt, a movie receiving almost universal acclaim. While I can’t fault the powerful performance given by Meryl Streep as uber-strict Sister Aloysius Beauvier, I have trouble with the film’s depiction of nuns, and I’m still shaking my head over the implausible way the film ends. It reminded me of the old joke about finding out that -- like Santa Claus -- the Devil is your old man.
Comedies often get away with farfetched notions, but effective dramas need to be anchored in reality. Although Doubt projects a realistic setting -- a 1964 Catholic school in the Bronx -- the plot soon becomes a series of improbable conversations about whether or not Father Flynn (the always impressive Philip Seymour Hoffman) has abused new student Donald Miller (Joseph Foster), who just happens to be the school’s only black student.
When the usually cheerful Sister James (Amy Adams) tells Sister Aloysius (Streep) -- her authoritarian principal who makes Attila the Hun look like a sissy -- that Donald was called out of her class by Father Flynn, the nuns’ investigation (witch hunt?) begins. After all, Sister Aloysius has been worried about the priest for quite some time because of his “newfangled ideas.” She’s concerned about his sermon topics, his plans to secularize the Christmas pageant and his overly friendly attitude toward students and their parents. All this convinces Sister Aloysius of Father Flynn’s guilt, so she recruits the gullible Sister James -- who still harbors doubt over the priest’s guilt -- as a spy. She also talks with Donald’s mother (Viola Davis), hoping to involve her in plans to get rid of Flynn. This conversation emerges as one of the most hard-to-believe interactions in Doubt, for I seriously doubt any caring mother would choose to ignore child abuse, or the accusation of such behavior -- no matter what the reason.*
Is Father Flynn innocent? Not according to Sister Aloysius. She needs no proof other than her own convictions. During her questioning of the priest about his relationship with Donald, the persistent nun also inquires about his past. At this point, the truth seems elusive to viewers, a fact that remains unchanged throughout the film.
On the plus side, director/screenwriter John Patrick Stanley succeeds in giving his popular play a great “movie look.” He opens up the action and, thanks to cinematographer Roger Deakins, includes visual techniques that enhance the film considerably. So many times, movies made from theatrical productions come across as too stagy, but Doubt boasts an excellent cinematic presentation. How I wish the movie’s handling of its subject matter matched its outstanding production values!
With serious pedophilia issues facing the Catholic Church now, I find it difficult to appreciate a film in which the nuns are the ones who come across so negatively.
(Released by Miramax Films and rated “PG-13” for thematic material.)
For more information about Doubt, go to the Internet Movie Data Base or Rotten Tomatoes website.
*NOTE: Thanks to Elizabeth Reuter, who's worked in a counseling center for battered women and their husbands, for submitting the following important information regarding the character played by Viola Davis. When you're dealing with a mentally healthy woman not in fear for her life, you're right, she'd never allow it. But studies found that about 50% of women whose children were being molested knew about the abuse. It's simple; when women lived their own lives being abused, on some level they stop believing there's any other possible relationship for their children. Thus, Viola Davis's character believed that her child being abused was inevitable -- at least on some level. When she spoke, I saw the face of many, many women I'd known.