January 1, 2009

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Doubt (PG-13)
Meryl Streep comes out swinging as the formidable Sister Aloysius in Doubt, a lively adaptation of the play by the same name.

When Tina Fey talked about tough nuns in her “Bitch is the New Black” commentary, she was talking about women like Sister Aloysius (Streep). As the principal of a Catholic school (kindergarten through eighth grade) in a working-class neighborhood in the Bronx in the 1960s, Sister Aloysius is a person to be feared. During one of the movie’s opening scenes, she prowls the side aisle of the church, smacking the heads of children who are asleep or engaged in chatter during the homily. Once they realize that she’s headed their way, many of the children spring from open-mouthed slump into perfect posture, lest they feel her wrath. With the other nuns, however, you sense that she is a bit more of a realist about how far her discipline can go with these kids — sit the popular girl as far from the boys as you can, she tells the bright-eyed eighth-grade teacher Sister James (Amy Adams), and let’s just get her through the year intact, she says with an arch of the eyebrow.

Sister Aloysius knows human nature — perhaps she even thinks a little too much of her ability to peg people. When Sister James comes to Sister Aloysius to tell her that Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the relatively new priest who instructs the boys in gym and is popular in the parish, has seemed to single out one particular boy for attention, it’s in part because Sister Aloysius told Sister James to keep an eye on Flynn. Donald Miller (Joseph Foster II) is the school’s first and only black student. He’s had some trouble fitting in and Father Flynn seems to have taken him under his wing. Why, exactly, and what kind of relationship does he have with the boy? Sister James is suspicious but uncertain, eager to hear an innocent explanation for the boy’s strange behavior after visiting the rectory. Sister Aloysius, from the moment Sister James brings up the issue, has no such uncertainty. She is absolutely positive that Father Flynn has created or is attempting to create an inappropriate relationship with Donald and she is determined to get him to confess his sins and leave the school.

For a movie about a potentially predatory priest, Doubt is surprisingly lively, even funny at times. Flynn might be the movie’s central question mark, but Aloysius is the character whose layers we get to see. She has an immovability in the face of change (this is, we’re reminded, the beginning of a time of great turmoil for the country and the church) that can make her seem intolerant (she seems to believe, for example, that ballpoint pens are a harbinger of moral decay and the song “Frosty the Snowman” will lead the children in to paganism). But she also does seem to know people, does have a sophisticated understanding of her role in the community and does see how the structure of the church she so fiercely protects is also deeply flawed. She is, in a way, both trapped and empowered by what she calls her “certainty.” In throwaway lines that are almost buried in the emotions of the scene, we learn that she’s seen abusive priests before and that she’s almost entirely dependent on the cooperation of the priests in power — the men, she says, nearly spitting the word — to act on her suspicions. In that case, she had a priest on her side; in this case, the priests stick together. (This is excellently demonstrated by a scene where the priests enjoy a rare steak dinner with wine and cigarettes as they listen to Frank Sinatra music while over in the convent the sisters quietly eat what looks like boiled dinner.) She is a woman who would probably recoil at many of the ideas of feminism but is also an unrelenting power, someone who gets what she wants not because of the structure of her organization (which requires her to be obedient to the priests) but because of her own forceful personality. The scenes of her verbal one-on-one fights with Sister James (who likes Flynn’s seemingly kind nature and compassionate approach with the students) and with Father Flynn (who is truly no match for Aloysius) are, at the risk of sounding like a movie poster, electrifying.

Adams and Hoffman give good performances though theirs are completely trumped by Streep’s. She finds her equal, however, in Viola Davis, who shows up a little more than halfway through the movie as Donald’s mother. She has only a few minutes of screen time but she makes just as much of an impression as Streep does in her movie-long performance. You could spend half a literature seminar talking about the character, her motives and what Davis does with all this information.

I’ve read that Doubt, the movie, creates the world of this school and church more completely than the play (which only had a handful of characters; here, we get a whole parish). What I like best about Doubt, however, is that you can still see and feel the play in the movie and, just like after a good theatric performance, you leave the theater itching to talk about what you just saw. B+

Rated PG-13 for thematic material. Written and directed by John Patrick Shanley (the play’s author), Doubt is an hour and 44 minutes long and is distributed by Miramax Films.