Sister Aloysius believes beyond a shadow of a doubt that Father Flynn has molested a young altar boy. Despite no evidence, and no one believing her, she sets out to ruin his career.
The world of Doubt might come across as a caricature of what Catholic schools are really like. There are a number of rules in this school, from no ball point pins to no hair pins, and the principal is a figure to be feared at all costs. While the world of the movie may seem to be a bit overblown, it is closer to realistic than you may wish to believe. Director John Patrick Shanley wrote the movie based around his personal experiences in a Catholic grade school and even the character of Sister James is based on a real teacher from his time there. The movie may have been advertised as focusing on the controversy of Priests sexually abusing altar boys, but the real story here is the advancement of the Church in society in general.
The character at the center of the plot is Sister Aloysius, played with wild abandon by Meryl Streep. Aloysius is the principal of the school, a woman who rules over it with an iron fist. All the students fear her and a trip to her office is met with a shivering and quaking in their boots. When Aloysius witnesses Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the associate pastor, grab a student’s wrist and watches as the student recoils from the touch, she decides there is something wrong. When the father’s sermon that Sunday talks about doubt, she becomes convinced he has done something wrong. Finally, when the history teacher Sister James, mentions that a new African American student was called to Father Flynn’s office and the student returned visually shaken up, Aloysius becomes convinced that Flynn sexually abused the boy.
This is all just the backdrop for the epic clash between these two heavyweight performers to stage their Oscar nominated battles. The accusations of sexual abuse is there to set up the clash between the Old Church and the new direction that Catholicism was about to undertake. Aloysius is determined to follow the rules to the letter, unless breaking them means she can better achieve her vendetta against Father Flynn. Flynn on the other hand feels that the Church is being held back in the dark ages and needs to reform and become friendlier. While Aloysius believes that children should fear them and they should always be seen as greater than general society, Father Flynn believes mercy and kindness should be shown and the Church should be seen as a helpful force in the community. This is where the true balance of power in this movie lies and where the two character’s battle truly originates.
Many people will watch the movie with the preconception that they want to know whether or not the priest was guilty or not. This movie does everything it can to let you decide that for yourself. Shanley states that he is happy when he sees a couple leaving the theater, or the play that preceded the film, and the two people believe they have seen a completely different story. Four people can see the movie and two of them will believe the priest’s guilt while the other two will believe it was a baseless vendetta and the priest was completely innocent. That is what makes this movie so great, the fact that it encourages discussion and forces the viewers to actually use their brains.
None of this would have been possible without the acting skills of the performers on hand. All four of the main participants in the story received Oscar nominations. Meryl Streep had the hardest job, bringing an unlikeable character to life in a way that makes you want to get behind her at times. The script does her no favors and makes her a monster for at least a third of the movie but there are small moments, such as the scenes with the older nuns and the final monologue she delivers, that makes her character more than just a one-dimensional caricature.
Philip Seymour Hoffman brings an instant likeability to his character that helps you never want to believe that he is guilty of anything. However, the man is such a talented actor that just slight look here or a pause there makes you believe he is hiding something. He does the best job of anyone in the movie at creating a character that pops off the screen as something larger than life. The other two performances are from Amy Adams as Sister James and Viola Davis as the mother of the young boy. Viola Davis shares her only scenes with Meryl Streep and carries herself so she more than holds her own against the veteran actress. Amy Adams is the weakest link of the cast, all teary eyed and stubborn finality. She is not bad, but when compared to the other three performers, her weaknesses show out.
The first sermon of the movie we hear Father Flynn deliver is about doubt and that is the entire purpose of the movie, to cast doubt over what we see, what we believe and what we think we know to be true. The movie forces the audience to choose who they will believe and who they will follow but at the end we are still left with a sense of doubt, much as that which Sister Aloysius feels as she sits on the park bench outside her school. Who is right and who is wrong in this movie is never revealed and that is what makes this movie as strong as it is. It is not often that a movie leaves an audience contemplating the story when they leave the theater, but this one does and that makes it a great success.
Doubt: From Stage to Screen (19:08) talks to everyone involved, including writer/director John Patrick Shanley as well as the main actors Meryl Streep, Amy Adams, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Viola Davis. It is a look at the development of the story rather than the making of the film and is a decent featurette.
The Cast of Doubt (13:50) is a great roundtable discussion with Streep, Hoffman, Adams and Davis. They sit with an interviewer and discuss the movie amongst each other, with some scenes intercut throughout. It is a great discussion and all four actors have great thoughts about their characters.
Scoring Doubt (4:39) is a short feature that talks to both Shanley and composer Howard Shore (<i>Seven</i>) about how they scored the movie. Shore talks about how he used the music to show the old giving way to the new, a major theme from the movie.
The Sisters of Charity (6:20) shows interviews Shanley conducted with real nuns leading up to his writing of the script, including the real Sister James, who Amy Adams’ character was based on. It is an interesting conversation with the ideals of how Catholicism used to be compared to how it is now.
Finally, there is a commentary track with writer/director John Michael Shanley. It is a conversational track where Shanley seems to be just giving his thoughts on the subject matter and film as he watches it. He goes into detail about his experiences in Catholic school, the casting and making of the film, and the themes. It is a comfortable listen with lapses in dialogue but is better than a lot of commentaries.