If, as the old proverb goes, ‘doubt makes the mountain that faith can move’, then John Patrick Shanley’s powerful 2004 play, set in a Catholic school, posits a relative Kilimanjaro in the middle of the Bronx.
When the headmistress Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep) begins to suspect liberal forward thinking Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) of having inappropriate relationships with some of the pupils, she enlists the help of young teacher Sister James (Amy Adams). As evidence against Flynn, spurious or otherwise, begins to mount, Sister Aloysius shows her mettle and dogged resolve to try and elicit a confession from Flynn.
Adapting and directing his one act play for the screen Bronx-born baby boomer Shanley opens things up to strengthen the prism of accusation and denial between the three main characters, while playing up the diminishing effects that supposition supported by unsupportable dogma can have on the human psyche. At work, at play and most importantly in the arms of the faith they have allowed to define them, all these characters are victims of fundamentalism, one way or another.
Though basically a piece of filmed theatre, Doubt is as robust and enthralling as any character driven drama. The language of diplomacy, frustration and ultimately accusation take the place of physical action and adventure. It’s thrust and rhythm-provoking meditations are as complicated and painfully unsolvable as any brought on by the birch.
Needless to say Streep is remarkable as the twitchy, petty, deeply contradictory Aloysius and Hoffman is equally as fine as the compromised, slothfully superior priest. Shanley, who was last let near a director’s chair for the appalling 1990 Tom Hanks fantasy Joe Versus the Volcano proves he may not be the most inspired of filmmakers but he is good enough for a film that should be all about the language and its use to crush hope and personal freedoms.
With Doubt Shanley has made sure he will not always be remembered as the man who gave Cher her best movie role in 1987’s Moonstruck (which he wrote the screenplay for). He has also given his prescient, troubling and brilliant play a life beyond the boards.
General release from Fri 6 Feb.