Doubt (John Patrick Shanley, 2008): USA

Reviewed by Byron Potau.  Viewed at The Riviera Theatre, Santa Barbara, CA.

Writer/director John Patrick Shanley took on what might seem to be an easy task, adapting his own Pulitzer prize winning play, Doubt, into a successful film.  However, success on the stage does not always translate to success on film.  That is why Shanley deserves a great deal of credit for successfully turning his play into one of the year’s finest films.

One year after the assassination of President Kennedy, Father Flynn (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) gives a sermon on the feelings of doubt felt by those part of a community and by those who are alone in their feelings.  Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Meryl Streep) becomes suspicious that Father Flynn may have personal reasons for his sermon.  When Sister James (Amy Adams) informs Sister Aloysius that Father Flynn has taken a special interest in the parish school’s first black student Donald Muller (Joseph Foster), she becomes certain that Father Flynn has made sexual advances upon the boy despite the fact that there is no proof.  Both characters and their motives come into question with no easy answers and the audience must decide which side they believe, or believe in.

In only his second directing effort, John Patrick Shanley has crafted a fine drama with well placed bits of humor and incredibly fleshed out characters. He manages to give the film a very cold, gray feel and look well suited to its subject and time.  The acting is phenomenal and Meryl Streep has her best role in many years and she does not waste it.  She shows incredible range as the icy, stern Sister Aloysius, a woman so conservative she wants to ban ball point pens and considers Frosty the Snowman to be a pagan song.  She is funny and frightening in her authority and Streep makes us watch in awe as she chews up the scenery.  Phillip Seymour Hoffman is solid as Father Flynn and presents him in the same vein as former film priests Father Connelly in Angels With Dirty Faces and Father O’Malley in Going My Way.  There has been much buzz around the performance of Viola Davis as Mrs. Muller; while she is powerful, she only has one big scene and that is it.  She makes you want more, but all the attention that has been showered on that performance is taking attention away from another great performance in the film–that of Amy Adams as the cheerful, gentle, and timid Sister James, in a role that could have been very forgettable in the hands of a lesser actress.  Adams is wonderful as she is completely overpowered by Sister Aloysius.  Even as she yells at her at the top of her lungs she is completely vulnerable and powerless against this woman.  This is a strong film carried by its incredible acting and one that you won’t want to miss.

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