Film version of acclaimed play trades subtlety for melodrama
John Patrick Shanley’s film version of his Pulitzer Prize-winning play has a lot going for it—excellent cast, provocative and pungent script, a fascinating array of themes and insights, etc. But the onscreen results are somewhat less impressive—and less compelling—than you might expect in a production so conspicuously endowed.
I haven’t seen a stage production of Doubt, but the film version—while remarkable in a number of ways—is also at times a curious muddle. Not the least of the ironies involved is that the playwright himself, who both adapted and directed the film, may have weakened the original material.
This production has been marketed as a kind of dramatic duel between Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman. She plays Sister Aloysius Beauvier, principal of a Catholic grade school, and he plays the parish priest, Father Flynn, whom she begins to suspect of serious improprieties with one of the pupils, a troubled youngster who is the school’s lone black enrollee.
The setting is the Bronx in 1964, the period of Shanley’s own childhood and well before the pedophile priest scandals were widely publicized. There are two other adult characters of some consequence—the youthfully innocent Sister James (Amy Adams), a teacher at the school, and the troubled student’s mother (Viola Davis), whose single appearance in the action—in fraught conversation with Sister Aloysius—is the film’s strongest and most dramatically articulate sequence.
Shanley gets strong performances from all four actors, and maybe a little too strong in the case of Streep, who is the film’s most extravagant instance of a tendency to drift into broad caricature in the midst of what is ostensibly a sensitive, nuanced character study. The script preaches moral and spiritual subtleties, but Shanley’s direction trades a bit too much on alarmist grotesquerie and melodramatic innuendo.
Early on Father Flynn delivers a brave and enlightened-sounding sermon on the power of doubt, and that serves as a kind of keynote address for a drama that is, among several other things, a sort of revolving meditation on doubt and uncertainty. “Faith-based” politics never become an explicit concern, but the conflict between doubt and certainty, and between Father Flynn and Sister Aloysius, takes the story at least glancingly through a minefield of topical issues—race, gender, sexuality, priestly politics, the authority of tradition, etc.
There’s plenty to think about in this film, and plenty to ponder in its aftermath. I’d have fewer doubts about its accomplishments had it not been so assiduous in teasing its audience with innuendo and mistaken assumptions that can be exploited as illustrations in a decidedly loose-ended discourse on moral ambiguity.