Friday 18 February 2022

Movie Review: Doubt (2008)

A drama about possible misconduct involving a priest, Doubt boasts a talented cast but is firmly trapped in sterile stage origins.

The setting is 1964 in the Bronx. At a Catholic church also serving as a school for the community, the stern and old-fashioned principal Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Meryl Streep) keeps a close watch on the children's behaviour. She also notices when Father Brendan Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) delivers a sermon about doubt, and airs her thoughts to the younger Sister James (Amy Adams), the school's eighth grade history teacher.

Sister James then observes Flynn interacting, perhaps inappropriately but she is not quite sure, with the school's only black child, altar boy Donald Miller. She confides in Sister Beauvier, who decides to confront Flynn and accuse him of improper behaviour. He denies any wrongdoing. Sister Beauvier continues to investigate, and reaches out to the boy's mother Mrs. Miller (Viola Davis) to better understand his home environment.

Directed and written by John Patrick Shanley based on his play, Doubt is a series of verbal clashes all taking place in and around the Catholic school. Barely rising above the status of a filmed play, Doubt leans heavily on the Seriousness of the Topic and the star actors to salvage some level of cinematic drama.

Streep, Hoffman, Adams, and Davis (who gets just the one scene) step forward and offer their theatrical best, but it's not enough. Shanley endlessly circles the same drain of Beauvier having her doubts about Flynn's behaviour but not quite the evidence she needs, and so they spar, then spar again, and then spar some more, repeating the same couched accusations and the same offended denials. Her rage and his defensiveness both escalate, but the power dynamics are wayward and the words fail to spark.

Sister James and Mrs. Miller are relegated to side-characters and observers, their attitudes perhaps indicative of the era but still far from helpful. Sister James naively bends with the wind, and Mrs. Miller hints her son should tough it out and accept mistreatment as long as he graduates.

The running time is padded with irrelevant details from Sister James' classroom, featuring boys and girls trying to be boys and girls but stifled by rigid codes of conduct enforced with relish by Sister Beauvier.

Almost as a late afterthought Doubt works its way to the rot eating away at a Catholic church allowing serial offenders to thrive, and the futility of women speaking out against a centuries-old male-dominated hierarchy. The topic is of tragic importance, here fumbled into cold, static discourse.

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