[Screen It]

(2008) (Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman) (PG-13)

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Drama: A 1960s era Catholic principal/nun tries to prove that the church's priest is behaving inappropriately with the school's lone black student.
It's 1964, and Sister Aloysius Beauvier (MERYL STREEP) is the head nun and principal at St. Nicholas Church School where she run the place with an eagle eye and an absolute demand for rule following. While troublemaker William London (MICHAEL ROUKIS) doesn't seem fazed by her, most of the students are terrified of the steely sister, but find comfort in the priest, Father Brendan Flynn (PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN). Unorthodox in his sermons and ways of dealing with the students -- including altar boys Jimmy Hurley (LLOYD CLAY BROWN) and Donald Muller (JOSEPH FOSTER) -- he's made Sister Aloysius suspicious of his behavior.

That comes to a head when young nun Sister James (AMY ADAMS) reports that Donald was acting strangely after a private meeting with Father Flynn and smelled of alcohol. Determined to out him if he's responsible but knowing she must tread cautiously since he's her superior, Sister Aloysius then sets out to prove him of wrongdoing, including meeting with the boy's mother, Mrs. Muller (VIOLA DAVIS), in hopes of finding signs of his guilt.

With Father Flynn proclaiming his innocence and Sister Aloysius certain of his guilt, her quest becomes a battle of both their wills and the truth, with the future of 12-year-old Donald -- the school's lone black student -- also hanging in the balance.

OUR TAKE: 6.5 out of 10
I've always wondered if the people who have the most success in their lives -- I'm mainly referring to those who've been mega successful, particularly in their careers -- ever experienced much, or for that matter, any, doubt in the choices they've made.

In other words, do they act like the rest of us -- hemming, hawing and agonizing if a decision is the correct one and then worrying that it isn't -- or do they sail full steam ahead, damning the proverbial torpedoes and let the chips fall where they may without ever looking back and/or questioning their choice?

Yes, we're talking about the incredibly powerful mental condition known as doubt. Not only can it paralyze those afflicted with it into indecision and irresolution, but it can also serve a good purpose by providing enough hesitation that one has time to better examine a pending decision. After all, it's saved many a kid from jumping off a roof, a spouse from cheating, and any number of people from ruining others' lives without all of the facts.

The latter comes into play in a big way in "Doubt," writer/director John Patrick Shanley's big-screen adaptation of his own Broadway play of the same name that had a successful and critically welcomed run on Broadway a few years back. It's the tale of a steely, by-the-books, old school nun (Meryl Streep) who doesn't like her boss the priest (Philip Seymour Hoffman) who's trying to modernize the Church and its interaction with its parishioners.

When a young nun (Amy Adams) begins to think that the priest might be abusing the school's lone black student (Joseph Foster), that only reinforces the head nun's doubts about the priest's morals and ability to run the church. What follows is a battle of wills where the priest tries to keep doubt front and center of the nuns and congregation, all while the sisters doubt his word and, to varying degrees, the facts and their assumptions.

It's a generally well-made and certainly well-performed production (I've never seen the play so comparisons are moot) that smartly causes the viewers to have their own doubts regarding who's right and wrong. Considering the severity of the allegations and possible crime, as well as the potential repercussions of the accused being innocent or guilty, Shanley will likely have audiences switching back and forth in their allegiance, and ultimately leaves the final verdict in their hands (a nice move on his part).

Considering that doubt is the main ingredient in play, however, I was expecting all degrees of that to be ratcheted up as the story progresses and unfolds. Considering it takes place in the 1960s when white men still ruled the roost, if you will, where's the worry among the nuns -- particularly regarding Streep's character -- of the personal retribution should their allegations turn out to be false?

More strikingly, there's a curious absence of any of the three main characters having doubts about their religion and/or God for allowing this -- the abuse and the allegations -- to take place. Throw in Sister Aloysius not questioning the mother (Viola Davis) of the supposed victim telling tales of her husband abusing their boy (that said, she does doubt the parent's justification of keeping the boy in the school, and thus in potential harm's way, so that he can graduate to a good high school), and the film comes off feeling like it's not quite all that it should be.

Perhaps with the inclusion of one or more of those additional elements of uncertainty, fear and questioning one's self and/or higher power, the film might have crackled with more consistent, high-powered conflict. Oh, it's there from time to time, especially when Streep and Hoffman turn up the dramatic intensity of their performances, lighting up the screen getting their and the viewer's adrenaline pumping. It's just that for yours truly, that isn't maintained throughout as I kept waiting for the battle of wills, allegations, denials, excuses and facts to escalate to some spectacular level.

Again, it's all good, but it only occasionally rises to greatness, be that in the performances or dialogue. In terms of direction, Shanley does a fine job of opening up the stage production into a more visual medium, even if some of the metaphors (the literal and figurative winds of change blowing in, for example) are a little too heavy-handed.

While there's little question that most critics and/or average viewers will likely accept what's offered without question (even if it makes them determine the final answer to what's presented), I just wish there were a little more nagging doubt at play in "Doubt." The film rates as a 6.5 out of 10.

Reviewed November 21, 2008 / Posted December 12, 2008

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