Sunday, May 26, 2013

Doubt (2008)

Director: John Patrick Shanley                      Writer: John Patrick Shanley
Film Score: Howard Shore                            Cinematography: Roger Deakins
Starring: Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams and Viola Davis

Written and directed by John Patrick Shanley, from his play of the same name, Doubt is an interesting character study and a meditation on the power of suspicion. Though it is set in the nineteen sixties, it has clear implications for today with so many Catholic priests being exposed as pedophiles during the past decade, in addition to the long history of such behavior that came to light simultaneously. The title is a good one considering the myriad of issues that come along with the decisions to be made by the characters. It’s a good cast, and though Shanley tried to open things up, it still feels a bit claustrophobic as a film. The extras filling up the church and on the street are just that, extras, and as such the film doesn’t allow us into their homes or heads and so what were left with is the cloister of the church.

Philip Seymour Hoffman is a young priest, embracing the new attitudes of the Catholic Church in the sixties. But Meryl Streep is the nun in charge of the school, a strict disciplinarian who clearly embraces the old ways. Amy Adams is a young nun caught in between, believing that the new ways are more humane, and yet seeing through her own experience how necessary the old discipline is. This comes into play when she suspects Hoffman of inappropriate relations with a student, a young black boy played by Joseph Foster, and tells Streep of her suspicions. The proof is tenuous, alcohol on the boy’s breath, a clandestine meeting in the rectory, a t-shirt. Streep is immediately convinced because of past experience. She has a talk with the boy's mother, a brief but powerful performance by Viola Davis, and this brings up even more ethical questions. Adams, however, desperately wants to believe in Hoffman’s innocence. And this is where even more ethical and philosophical questions raise their heads that the audience must sort out for themselves.

For me, there was little ambiguity in the direction of the film. After watching films like Sleepers and The Woodsman, it’s clear that erring on the side of the victim is preferable in cases like this, especially since it is not the victim coming forward to make the accusations. Institutions like church and school--in this case both together--have a greater responsibility and therefore should be held to a higher standard. And I firmly agree with Streep at the end of the film that the end justified the means. But there is also the lingering disappointment that, while she managed to do what was right for her church, nothing had been achieved that was even remotely like a solution to the problem. The film was nominated for five Oscars that year, though nobody won, and in the end that’s the assessment I’d give it: a nicely done drama that gives us something to think about, but not an enduring classic. There are lots of films that are definitely worth seeing once, and Doubt falls squarely into that category

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