Sunday, December 28, 2008
It's just at the climax of Doubt - at the point where Meryl Streep's Sister Beauvier and Phillip Seymour Hoffman's Father Flynn confront each other behind closed doors, and one of them ultimately relents - that you realize that the end of this marvelously acted drama is going to come sooner than you expected.
Not that the movie, at one hour and forty-four minutes, is unusually short. But the story seems unusually quickly resolved...at least on film.
In other words, despite the amazing performances by the two principles - and by Amy Adams as the innocently naive Sister James, as well - the movie suffers a bit from that old syndrome of theater directors translating their work to film: what works in a theater, in front of a live audience, struggles as a movie to deliver the same sense of satisfaction. And why? Because theater is a medium of words; movies are a medium of images. The images in this movie are rich, textured recreations of a 1960's Catholic school. Unless that holds some special nostalgia for you (and it doesn't for me), there's little else other than the words and acting of this parable of inquisition to hang your hat on.
But supreme acting it is. I would normally be writing a review about how much better it would be to see this story on the stage - but unless you had Streep going up the stalwart Hoffman, you would miss two amazing performances from two of our best actors. So it's worth buying a ticket, and especially so to see Streep give yet more evidence of why she's probably the best actor on earth.
Streep's Sister Beauvier represents, of course, the old ways of the church: relying on strict discipline and the aura of fear to keep young minds in line. What Streep does so well, of course, is make this a complicated character, not a stereotype. Sister Beauvier is strict, of course, but also capricious, humorous, self-deprecating, even compassionate, and convinced of her convictions, and the rightness of her actions. She has something to teach the young, idealistic, and somewhat incompetent Sister James about how to command respect, not just obedience, and Sister James listens, and learns. She learns a little too well, and becomes an unwitting accomplice to Sister Beauvier's suspicions about Father Flynn, and what he may be doing behind closed doors with some of the more susceptible alter boys.
Hoffman's Father Flynn, for his part, is the opposite, or counterpoint, to Sister Beauvier's strict authority: a full-figured fellow who loves life and hearty appetites, he represents the new age of Sixties enlightenment...a kind of early flower child, who points out that the word of the lord is "Love" and that doubt is an emotion that creates a human community. He also, it turns out, is a man of as much principal as Sister Beauvier. Hoffman brings the kind of iconoclastic intensity of his character Gust Avrakotos from "Charlie Wilson's War," only better groomed and cherub-cheeked. He is no real radical, of course, but his sermons of doubt and deeds of compassion do create a radical disruption to Sister Beauvier's community of austerity.
That the two would ultimately go up against each other is what this story is about. As is the truth behind the accusation that sets the conflict in motion.
All of which is to say, it is a great story, marvelously acted, and full of superbly delivered words, the most moving of which are no doubt Streep's amazing soliloquy to Adams at the end, a kind of poetic coda to the title of the play. Shanley frames his story so that, as one might say, the ultimate villain, and hero, is what you're meant to debate. All of which I appreciate, for I love a good ripping tale that leaves you with such delicious dinner conversation at the end (I think of the play "Art," which I saw in London, which has the same moral open-endedness and conversational effect).
My only qualm is that this marvelous play wasn't filmed by someone with a little more distance on the material who would have felt free to make the changes necessary to make it a superb movie. More on the boy's family, on Father Flynn's acquaintances, on other parishioners might have taken the movie out of its claustrophobic stage-set experience. The movie reminds me a bit of the series Mad Men, especially the character of Peggy Olson and her relationship with religion. But where Mad Men sets Peggy into a broad context of diverse characters, Doubt stays focused on the conflict between Sister Beauvier and Father Flynn. In a theater with live performance, such tight focus creates a gripping experience of high drama. On the more distant movie screen, it creates moments of brilliantly composed acting, and a feeling that all that acting should have someplace more definitive to go.