“Doubt” – Casts Compelling Shadows – 3 popcorns

popcornBy Michael S. Goldberger, film critic 

You know that boring couple you’ve been promising to double with, but keep putting off for fear of the dead air that might permeate the evening? Call them now. Suggest you see “Doubt.” The film will take up 104 minutes. Following that, either at dinner or the coffee table of choice, even the dullest of dullards should be spurred to conversation.

Writer/director John Patrick Shanley’s supercharged delve into the nooks and crannies of truth, morality and the confounding gray areas that surround said principles is that kind of movie. Posing its what-ifs, maybes and do-you-supposes in a tension-filled opus to uncertainty, “Doubt” has you begging for the proverbial can of warms to be opened.  

But not so fast. Mr. Shanley’s superbly played script about a nun (Meryl Streep) who suspects a priest (Philip Seymour Hoffman) of improprieties with a young African-American student (Joseph Foster) slyly proves how difficult it can sometimes be to discern the truth. Only the most close-minded won’t second-guess their conclusions.

The devilish beauty of it all—it’s an equal opportunity conundrum that resides at the heart of the plot. On first blush, strict constructionists will rush to support Meryl Streep’s no-nonsense Sister Aloysius Beauvier. Whereas liberals might initially be moved by the disarming, hale and hearty Father Flynn Philip Seymour Hoffman so warmly fashions. 

And then it insidiously creeps into our reasoning processes…doubt. Not necessarily because we wish right done, though it’s nice to think so. But more probably, we’d just like to be right. There are differences. And embodying them with chameleon-like naturalness, the leads skillfully interpret the author’s every diversion and sleight of hand.

Mood-filled art direction enhances Shanley’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play. Set in a Bronx parish, circa 1964, the stark, authoritarian atmosphere is framed by the unbending, linear solemnity of the cityscape. And leave it to Streep, mistress of accents, to echo the scenery with just the right, rough-edged, blue-collar contralto to her tone. 

It makes her all the more foreboding. Surely it must have been a martinet like her who daily administered discipline back in the day to my next-door pal, Little Michael. Then again, though not excusing that sister’s actions, said friend was a bit of a wiseacre. Come to think of it, this scenario just seems too simple: Charismatic Priest vs. Suspicious Nun.

Something’s afoot. It becomes increasingly difficult to imagine a satisfactory ending, Pulitzer or not. We bristle. Perhaps there’s a twist. Meanwhile, tensions thicken. We scrutinize each nuance…that last smile flashed by either Father Flynn or Sister Aloysius. We find ourselves truth seekers, jurors, troubled and burdened, but never bored. 

Making it all the more difficult, we progressives want to like Father Flynn. At the dawn of the social change that will mark the 1960s, he’s espousing the emerging mantra. Yet for all the hardened coldness Sister Aloysius represents, it’d be hypocritical to merely discount her as a frustrated old biddy. Her accusatory antennae detect something.

Plainly, the viewer needs more info…possibly something in either rival’s background that might supply an entrée to their raison d’etre. Look hard if you will. But Mr. Shanley deals only one solid clue for every three feints. In the process, we come to appreciate the detrimental power of our own preconceptions and vow to next see a comedy.

Miss Streep and Mr. Hoffman lock horns with enigmatic flourish. Playing it equally close to the vestments, both actors guard the film’s seemingly impenetrable mystery with subtle skill. And despite the personal cataclysms their characters experience, you can’t help but think that they actually relish this moral battle they were predestined to fight.

Not quite so equipped for the turmoil that ensues at St. Nicholas is Amy Adams’s Sister James. An eighth grade teacher and relatively new member of the church community, the novitiate would have preferred to reside within the protection of the church sans incident, sheltered from the cruelties of the real world. Well, afraid not, sister.

True, her superior may have planted the seed of mistrust. But all the same, she sees something…its value uncertain but curious. Partly because of her own doubts, partly for being Sister Aloysius’s unwitting pawn, she alerts the latter about a possible, unholy alliance between young Miller and the popular priest. She is drawn into the imbroglio.

Thus we are presented a parable worthy of our gray matter. Scintillatingly exploring its title subject while also making astute investigations into authority, obligation, faith and truth, there’s plenty here to ponder. And just think: the aforementioned couple will be so impressed with your choice of “Doubt” that double dating once again will be a sure thing.

“Doubt,” rated PG-13, is a Miramax Films release directed by John Patrick Shanley and stars Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams. Running time: 104 minutes    

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