I’ve Got My Doubts About Doubt

Running Time: 104 minutes
Written and directed by John Patrick Shanley
Starring Meryl Streep, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Viola Davis

John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt, from his own screenplay, adapted from his own play, left me less moved than querulously dissatisfied despite the impressive performances of Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, and Viola Davis in all the key roles. Perhaps I decided that the very idea of doubt is inimical to the demands of dramatic narrative onscreen or on the stage. As it is, we are left with a very clear idea of whom we are supposed to approve, and of whom we are supposed to disapprove, at least until a cop-out ending that pulled the rug out from under me, if not from under you or from the under the greater part of the critical establishment.

Ms. Streep dominates the proceedings at first by hitting her marks hard as every Catholic school pupil’s nightmarish nun instructor crusading against, among other things, the evil effects of ballpoint pens on pupils’ penmanship. It seems that its users press down too hard on the paper. Mr. Hoffman’s Father Flynn uses a ballpoint pen and takes three lumps of sugar with his tea. These are all venial sins in Sister Aloysius’ moral account book, as is his desire to add some secular music to the annual Christmas Pageant along with the use of Frosty the Snowman, which, in Sister Aloysius’ view, is a dangerous pagan symbol for the congregation.

Mr. Hoffman is at his most affable and "progressive" as Father Flynn, and Ms. Streep is at her most censorious and vindictive as Sister Aloysius. Their most crucial conflict arises over her suspicion that Father Flynn has behaved improperly with an altar boy named Donald Miller, who is the only African-American pupil in the school. When Amy Adams’ mediating Sister James notices alcohol on Donald’s breath from his drinking sacramental wine during his visit to Father Flynn in the rectory, Sister Aloysius pounces on the misdeed as proof that Father Flynn is unfit to continue as head of the parish’s Catholic school—even when Donald’s mother (Viola Davis) pleads with Sister Aloysius to let the matter rest because Father Flynn has befriended the boy while his own father only beats him.

Not only do we never know for sure if Father Flynn is guilty of impropriety with Donald, we are led to suspect that Donald may have gay tendencies, but these suspicions are never resolved or explored. In this age of doctrinal uncertainty, the essentially secular approach to Catholicism championed by Father Flynn and endorsed by Sister James places the onus of fanatical religiosity squarely on Sister Aloysius. As I indicated at the outset, all the performances are praiseworthy, though in a dubious cause that involves stacking the deck.

I’ve Got My Doubts About Doubt