Sister Act

Doubt
Running time 104 minutes
Written and
directed by John Patrick Shanley
Starring Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams

In Doubt, the somber, talky movie John Patrick Shanley has written and directed from his own play, Meryl Streep gives the polar opposite of Mickey Rourke’s performance in The Wrestler. From the first minute you lay eyes on her as an owlish, vise-lipped, anally retentive nun named Sister Aloysius Beauvier in a Catholic primary school in the Bronx, you’re aware that she’s acting. She acts and acts, and when she has nothing to say, reacting to others, she acts some more. Philip Seymour Hoffman, as Father Brendan Flynn, the smiling, softhearted priest she falsely accuses of child molestation, refusing to change her mind about his alleged guilt even though she cannot prove it, doesn’t offer much balance. He’s busy playing the charisma card. Together, they’re acting all over the place. Most unfortunate, if you ask me, because it makes the important issues, raised but unresolved, look even phonier than they should be.

This nun is a vicious, mean-spirited bully. When Cherry Jones played her on Broadway, I don’t remember her being so tightly coiled or morally superior. She allowed you to believe she was a nun with doubts. Ms. Streep is so nasty that she stalks the aisles of the church during actual Mass, whacking her students across the back of their heads like she’s smashing spiders. She’s just plain hateful, and the priest who allows her to destroy him without a fight is just plain wimpy. In the end, when Sister Aloysius admits she might have made a mistake, you already dislike her so much that you don’t much care. Her anguish is more like crocodile tears. There’s no sympathy for cruelty hiding behind a habit.

Set in the year Kennedy was assassinated, the movie is about spiritual isolation in a time of despair and fear. The warm priest is a man of the cloth offering hope and friendship to the school’s first black student. The cold nun is the school’s principal, a disillusioned bigot who even interrupts the classes taught by other sisters to dish out harsher disciplines to their students. He’s like Bing Crosby in The Bells of St. Mary’s, but she’s not Ingrid Bergman. She’s more like the crones who tortured Jane Eyre. Self-righteous and hard, she’s clearly jealous of Father Flynn, whose compassion and camaraderie make him a favorite among his students. Another nun, naïve and inexperienced, played by Amy Adams (who gives the best performance in the film), is the one who reports the priest’s private consultation with the disturbed boy in his rectory, planting the first seeds of doubt in Sister Aloysius’ suspicious mind. “The students are uniformly terrified of you,” he says. “Yes,” she snarls without regret, “that’s how it works.” A firm believer in progressive education, and in a friendly bond between the clergy and congregation, he smokes, takes three lumps of sugar in his tea and introduces “Frosty the Snowman” into the Christmas pageant. A metaphor for old-world dogma masquerading as virtue, she forsakes her own vows to go outside the church to crucify him.

At the roots of a flawed but well-written piece, this is what I find wrong with Doubt. Mr. Shanley obviously knows more than I do, but unless I missed something, Roman Catholic priests have always enjoyed all the freedom and power in the church. Nuns are like office wives, doing the work and keeping their mouths shut. In the pecking order, the Fathers report to a much higher authority. Nuns have no control over priests. In the recent Boston church pedophile scandals, the nuns were not the ones who reported the abuses. Even if Father Flynn was guilty of an indiscretion in his past, as the film vaguely implies, it would be none of Sister Aloysius’ business. The crisis of faith faced by everyone in Doubt raises the biggest doubt of all.

rreed@observer.com