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Poignant Doubt an exercise in faith
Poignant Doubt an exercise in faith
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN Contributing Writer

Doubt
Opening december 19


Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is not a man who believes in convention. It is the winter of 1964, and he has come to St. Nicholas to help move the school into a new age of tolerance and learning, even if some, most notably the longtime principal Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Meryl Streep), don't agree with his activist methods and irregular actions.

But what of Father Flynn's attentions towards the school's first (and only) black student, young Donald Miller (Joseph Foster)? Are they as innocent as he claims, or is there something far more insidious going on that nobody knows about? Just the thought is enough to frighten Sister James (Amy Adams), a young new teacher who connects with her students like few of her older compatriots, her suspicions leading her to confide in Sister Aloysius almost without thinking.

Soon a battle of wills erupts between the headstrong nun and the activist priest, neophyte Sister James caught somewhere between them. Did he do the unthinkable? Who knows - there is no proof, after all - but just the hint of scandal is enough for this highly piteous trio to enter into a crisis of conscience and faith putting everything they believe to the ultimate of tests.

Oscar-winning filmmaker John Patrick Shanley's (Moonstruck) adaptation of his own Tony Award-winning play Doubt is a very good movie. It is not, however, a great one. Extremely well acted by the leads and full of complicatedly intelligent discussions well worth ruminating on, all the same this picture isn't as transcendent or as timeless as some might like you to believe.

Which isn't even close to being a bad thing. Good movies with something to say are far too few and even farther between, and just because this one doesn't shake the heavens with magnificence, don't think that makes it any less worthwhile. There is plenty to chew on, even more to debate with friends in the morning, its themes concerning faith, morality and educational authority as timeless today as they probably were during the era in which this story is set.

Ironically, the thing holding the film back from greatness is the very creator who made it such a smash sensation on theatrical stages all across the United States. Shanley is so intent on opening up his play into something visually cinematic he ends up doing far more harm than good. He allows gifted cinematographer Roger Deakins (No Country for Old Men) to go hog wild with eccentric camera angles and uncomforting lighting schemes, the picture sometimes having such a crooked and cockeyed point of view it actually becomes just a wee bit disconcerting.

More than that, the director tends to hammer home the inherent subtlety of his piece with almost didactic forcefulness. The wind can't just blow; it must also destroy umbrellas and nearly push people over. Rain can't just fall; it must all descend from the sky with all the fury and pain of Noah's flood. It all gets to be more than a little bit too much, and more than once I found myself sitting in my chair silently wishing the filmmaker would just take a chill pill and let things be.

Somehow none of this destroys the drama's emotional power. If Shanley the director tends to overdo things here or there, Shanley the writer does such an exquisite job of crafting a fascinating storyline that the film's visual shortcomings are hardly the problem they probably should be. There are no easy answers found within this high-octane tête-à-tête, the central mystery as beguiling and unanswered at the end as it was at the very beginning.

Instead, the film's focus is firmly fixated upon Sister Aloysius. Her undying faith is the point from which all else springs, her stunning realization of just exactly what it is she's done, and what it means in regards to said faith, truly devastating. The look on Sister James' face as she takes it all in nearly left me breathless, the beginnings of tears welling in her elder's eyes all it took for me to choke up in painful understanding right along with her.

No surprise, but the acting is more or less sensational. But while Streep will undoubtedly get the majority of the accolades, and while this is certainly a marvelous performance, I can't quite claim it to also be one of the woman's very best, her work in pictures as diverse as Sophie's Choice, Ironweed, One True Thing and The Bridges of Madison County having far more sway over me then what she does here.

If anything, to my mind the one with the most difficult role is former Junebug nominee Adams. It is her job to react to all the madness swirling around her. She is the one who has to respond to both Streep and Hoffman's advances, the one who has to sit there and take all that they say in with an open heart, revealing her true feelings not with words, but only with the multitude of expressions gallivanting across her awestruck face. It's a tough task but Adams proves more than up to the challenge, her supporting performance arguably one of the best anyone is going to see all year.

One thing there will be no argument about is Viola Davis. The veteran character actress has one scene, but it is such an amazing moment, such a visceral exercise in brutal honesty and heartrending emotion, this maybe 10-minute sequence of film becomes absolutely impossible to forget. Building slowly and methodically, Davis raises herself to a virtuoso level you just don't expect, her farewell look to Streep stopping my blood so completely cold I almost needed to slap myself in the face to get it flowing again.

All of which makes it kind of a pity Shanley feels such a need to show off behind the scenes. The actors are just so good, and the writing is just so sharp, none of these visually battering theatrics are even vaguely worthy of the effort they obviously took to stage. All they really did was throw me out of the story, unsettling my equilibrium enough it took me a moment to get re-encapsulated inside the filmmaker's rigorously theological quagmire.

Yet the film still can't help but rise above these problems with - dare I say it - almost divine ease. It is as if there is an angel sitting on the motion picture's shoulder, helping the director ultimately steer things toward success even when some of his more unfortunate instincts almost did him in. By the time it was over, I knew I was watching something wonderfully memorable, Doubt leaving no skepticism on my part as to its own poignant majesty.

Courtesy of moviefreak.com

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