John Patrick Shanley's Doubt is downright obstreperous in its clinging to theatrical metaphor and insularity. It is tightly-wound and compactly unfurled, finding a powerful dramatic rhythm for its eventful tale that recalls such theatrical screen transfers as A Streetcar Named Desire and A Long Day's Journey into Night by Elia Kazan and Sidney Lumet respectively. The film has the unmistakable integument of a play made cinematic, with autumnal and mutedly chiaroscuro cinematography by Roger Deakins and an insidiously clamant score by Howard Shore. Written for the screen and directed by the play's playwright, John Patrick Shanley, the film is respectably confident. Shanley's acclaimed Broadway play (which won both a Pulitzer and Tony) in this context serves as the womb from which his film emerges. Marinated in minimalism, Doubt is no less accomplished for proudly wearing its restraint. And yet the film is not truly restrained, but rather almost endearingly obstinate in its framework.
The year in which Doubt takes place is 1964. It is at the height of the three-year Second Ecumenical Council of the Catholic Church, broadly known as Vatican II. The world is at a crossroads, and so too is the Church. At a Catholic parish in the Bronx, three variations of modern Catholicism are examined. Meryl Streep plays Sister Aloysius Beauvier, the unremittingly stern disciplinarian Saint Nicholas Catholic school principal whose menacing roving movements throughout the campus instill tremendous fear in students. Philip Seymour Hoffman plays the pivotal Father Flynn, a liberal secularist whose modernism immediately worries Sister Aloysius. Amy Adams is Sister James, the nun teacher who every student wishes to have, an extremely kindhearted and naïve woman whose role as Sister Aloysius' subordinate—taken in under Sister Aloysius' nearly maternal wing—clashes with her inclination to believe in the inherent decency of Father Flynn.
As the film commences, the sights and sounds of a bleakly wintry morning, with parishioners entering to hear their priest, leave an indelible impression. A shot in which the church is framed, with a stream of individuals entering the austere House of God, recalls Ingmar Bergman's Winter Light: the depressively bitter weather of God's earth juxtaposed with His sanctuary. (Bergman's Protestant testing of the soul featured another man of God wracked by doubt.) The weather is a key thematic touchstone, with the bizarre windiness noted by several characters, most especially Sister Aloysius, who, at one point, melancholically remarks as though she herself is specifically overwhelmed by it, “The wind has changed!” In the final homily of Father Flynn's—always somewhat strangely referred to as the less singularly Catholic sermon—he remarks that a “wind... guides us...” In another piece of portentousness, a tree branch has fallen from a campus tree due to the stormy weather.
The relationship between the doggedly pursuant principal and progressive priest is symbolized, like nearly all plot mechanics of the picture, quite emphatically. One such sequence plays against the background of a cat quickly catching and disposing of a troublesome rodent while the pendulous Sister James listens to Sister Aloysius's game plan for ridding Saint Nicholas of Father Flynn. A recurrently errant light in Sister Aloysius's office is amusing but unnecessary. These are metaphors that should have been excised in the transition from stage to screen, as they, in their respective forms, require the actors to supply expository dialogue that makes the film all the less realistic. Certain visually linguistic shots ring completely true. When Father Flynn appears to be in trouble with the undeviating Sister Aloysius, Shanley nonchalantly frames the priest in a medium shot with a boy sitting on the bench adjacent to the principal's office. The scene speaks volumes about the dynamics at play.
At first glance, Sister Aloysius is almost humorously dour. She seems to detest anything that gives life any comfort or solace, including sugar cubes, cough drops (which she dismisses as candy), ballpoint pens, pagan heresy in the form of the song “Frosty the Snowman.” Her vehemence threatens to reduce her to villainy. Between Streep's challengingly empathetic interpretation and Shanley's rigorously even-handed treatment, however, Sister Aloysius is actually far from monstrous. She is shown to genuinely care for the children who fear and loathe her, fervently believing that they must be held to as high standards as possible for them to be good Catholics. Truly suspecting Father Flynn of being a pedophile she is repulsed by the possible specter of a man of God using his place in the society and Catholic heirarchy. When Sister James points out that the children all fear the principal, Streep's delivery of the line—“That's how it works”—excellently and succinctly conveys Sister Aloysius's perspective. In the case of a particularly troublemaking youngster, it is learned that Sister Aloysius's suspicions—that he bloodied his own nose so he could leave school early—were correct. Formerly married to a man lost in Italy during World War II, Sister Aloysius may indeed be Shanley's take on the zeal of the convert.
Viola Davis gives an impassioned but meticulously modulated supporting performance as the mother of the only black child at Saint Nicholas, who just so happens to be the boy Sister Aloysius believes has been taken advantage of by Father Flynn. Shanley draws a stimulating portrait of the double-edged sword of race in America. Sister Aloysius is taken aback when she hears the mother's statements, which amount to excusing any such relationship between Father Flynn and the boy so long as the child is allowed to make it to June (in another, subtler emphasis on the seasonal impact of the weather), and graduation. As the mother tells Sister Aloysius, she and the boy's father believe the boy's sexual inclinations veer toward homosexuality. The father's hatred of homosexuality in his son compels him to beat his child. The mother informs Sister Aloysius that if this scandal surfaces the father will kill the boy. Shanley's sweeping inclusion of race in the equation contributes to the setting of the film's time and place (as Father Flynn reminds, it is a year after the Kennedy assassination). It is a superb culling of sociological resources.
There are some abrading missteps. The film takes place in 1964, during Vatican II. And yet Father Flynn's homilies are portrayed as so secular and detached from Scripture that it would be difficult to find such seemingly laical homilies in a Catholic service even today. If the parts of the three homilies depicted are to be viewed as merely parts, not totals, it would have served Shanley well to make this clear. Otherwise, they make Sister Aloysius's complaints ring all the truer, and cast Father Flynn in an unrealistically fanciful light. The Brechtian structure of the play and film's drama makes the homilies all the more obviously directed at the audience (as they evidently were on the stage). This is certainly not an illegitimate approach, though cinematically, without greater context, makes the device far more diaphonously schematic.
Nevertheless, Shanley's fixation on cleanliness, most limpidly brought to the forefront by Father Flynn's lecture to a group of boys about their dirty fingernails, supplies a nuanced shelter under which much of the tale plays out. In a statement apparently aimed at Father Flynn's questioned masculinity, Shanley's camera closes in on the man's unusually long fingernails, which he favors. It is rather intriguing that many of the physical tics and mannerisms employed by Hoffman seem to largely confirm Sister Aloysius's worst suspicions rather than refute them. And yet can these read as simple playwright misdirections? It is left ambiguous, with the viewer left to decide.
Doubt succeeds primarily because of Shanley's conviction. It is this artistic conviction that finds itself projected in a work entitled Doubt that paradoxically comes to the forefront. In Father Flynn's first homily, he asks, “What do you do, when you're not sure?” Shanley is sure of what he is after. And he makes it clear to every viewer, attracting and alienating along the way.