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Glenn Erickson

Blu-Ray Review: Doubt

Father Flynn: “Doubt can be a bond as powerful and sustaining as certainty. When you are lost, you are not alone.”

When was the last time that a film nailed your attention with scenes of a priest delivering a church sermon?

John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt, adapted from his own Pulitzer Prize-winning play, carries a powerful emotional kick. It takes place between just a few characters in the interior of St. Nicholas, an aged Catholic grade school run by the Sisters of Charity. The warm and uplifting sermons of the easygoing, progressive Father Brendan Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) support the new openness of the church in the 1960s. But the day-to-day school business is administered by the stern principal, Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Meryl Streep). Sister Aloysius rejects modernism and is highly suspicious of change; she’s a martinet with the nuns under her watch and a tyrant to the schoolchildren in her care. Sister Aloysius runs things by gut instinct and suffers no fools. She disapproves of Flynn’s “soft” sermons and is suspicious of his personal relationships with the students.

Trouble begins when young history teacher Sister James (Amy Adams) picks up hints of an inappropriate relationship between Father Flynn and young Donald Miller (Joseph Foster), St. Nicholas’ only black student. Sister Aloysius seizes on Father Flynn’s reluctance to discuss the matter as proof that he should resign. What follows is a battle of wills and a clash of philosophies. Sister Aloysius insists that Flynn tell her all, yet has already decided that he’s guilty. Flynn’s response is to deny that she has any right — moral or doctrinal — to challenge him. Flynn might be taking an ethical stand, but he could also be protecting Donald or shielding himself. Aloysius bores in mercilessly, certain of her mission even when she deceives and lies in her effort to force Flynn to confess.

When last year’s Oscar contenders queued up, Shanley’s film received plenty of nominations but won almost nothing. Some influential reviewers dismissed it as obvious and compared it unfavorably with the stage presentation. But powerful acting and sharp characterizations make Doubt one of the best movie experiences of the year.

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Meryl Streep’s Sister Aloysius is a force to be reckoned with. She readily admits that she runs St. Nicholas through fear. She whacks inattentive students with the back of her hand and terrorizes them with her steely gaze. Amy Adams’ meek Sister James may be inexperienced, but her idealism gives her an inner strength that even Sister Aloysius admires. As for Father Flynn, Philip Seymour Hoffman doesn’t let us know whether the priest has something to hide or is merely misunderstood. When Flynn demands that Sister Aloysius drop her investigation, Doubt spins into a gray moral area where faith, trust, and intuition clash. Sister Aloysius is undeterred by the absence of hard evidence — she’s convinced of Flynn’s culpability on principle and won’t believe anything he says short of a confession. As tempers heat up over what may be nothing at all:

Father Flynn: “Where is your compassion?”
Sister Aloysius: “Nowhere you can get at it!”

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Viola Davis‘ Mrs. Miller is present for only one scene and part of another, yet is so effective that Davis won an Oscar nomination (along with all three of the other main actors). Mrs. Miller is a working mother with few resources, who only wants her son to have a chance to get ahead in the world. Her response to Sister Aloysius’s suspicions is a disturbing compromise, but it’s still the act of a mother who places her son’s overall welfare before an unyielding moral code. Sister Aloysius is compelled to obey the rules no matter who might be hurt. She says that to do Good, sometimes one must step away from God — but adds that there is a personal price to be paid. Sister James despairs of her role in the controversy and worries that she no longer sleeps at night. The characters invite scrutiny, to say the least. We find ourselves searching their faces for the truth behind their words.

John Patrick Shanley offers little vignettes with the students of St. Nicholas school, adorable, impressionable kids who are sometimes less than cherubic. Father Flynn befriends the children and encourages their emotions, while Sister Aloysius sees the devil in them. By contrast, the trusting Sister James can’t believe that a delinquent boy would give himself a nosebleed as an excuse to cut class.

Director Shanley punctuates his film with memorable visual effects. A light in Sister Aloysius’s office keeps blowing out during tense meetings, the kind of phenomena that in an earlier age might be associated with sorcery. Sister Aloysius greets a visitor while holding a pole used to change light bulbs, making her look for a moment like a devil with a trident. Father Flynn’s pointed sermon on the topic of gossip ends with a vision of a blizzard of pillow feathers. Critics may have thought the gesture too obvious, but the shower of feathers doesn’t just represent gossip — it’s an excellent visualization of the invisible moral conflict between accuser and accused.

Miramax’s Blu-ray presentation of Doubt puts us on intimate terms with the drama — we can read subtleties in the actors’ expressions, even in wide shots. The film has a dark, brooding look. The storm clouds overhead contribute to a general feeling of apprehension, as does Howard Shore‘s sparse, ominous music score. The dimensionality of HD adds to the intensity of the viewing experience.

The full feature commentary gives us a chance to hear John Patrick Shanley’s thoughts on the development of his play and the contributions of his remarkable actors. Four featurettes include a making-of piece and others covering the music, the cast, and the film’s relationship to the real Sisters of Charity. We learn that, as a child, Shanley attended the Brooklyn school seen in the film. The Sister James character is based on an idealistic nun who was his teacher and who serves as a technical consultant. Elderly nuns appear on camera to talk openly about the changes to the church during the 1960s.

Glenn Erickson
reviews online at DVD Savant

April 6, 2009


Categories: DVD

Tags: Blu-ray reviews, Doubt, Dvd reviews, Meryl streep, Viola davis