Adapting a play into a wholly absorbing film can be a difficult thing, but it’s the kind of passionate, challenging project that lured John Patrick Shanley back to the screen to direct his first film since “Joe Versus the Volcano” almost twenty years ago.
Shanley adapts his own Pulitzer Prize-winning “Doubt,” about a radically conservative nun who principals a Catholic school and begins to suspect the pastor is abusing a young black student.
The play is set in 1964, right after the assassination of Irish president JFK, perfectly poising it at a critical moment in America’s social transitions. As such, the film is not really an embodiment of the conflict of right and wrong, guilt and innocent, but more about the ways conservative and progressive views clash
Meryl Streep channels ice as Sister Aloysius, her face pale white against her black garments. For the film’s opening act, she makes Aloysius a tightly wound caricature of Catholic schoolmasters, a woman whose adherence to her way of thinking is unwavering.
As the plot thickens, Streep’s colossal acting ability sinks in, and she transforms the character into judge and jury, a woman whose convictions could dare to blind her from the truth, whose belief in her own authority governs her inner weaknesses.
Going toe-to-toe with her is the seemingly warm-hearted Father Flynn, pitched to perfection by Philip Seymour Hoffman. While he delivers Shanley’s dialogue and uses body language to almost stunning perfection, it is Hoffman’s ability to mask any guilt his character may be experiencing; he retains simplistic emotional ambiguity throughout.
Amy Adams, as an idealistic young nun, and Viola Davis as the abused boy’s mother, provide crucial lynchpins in the supporting cast, conveying deeply set characterizations in small scenes.
“Doubt” is expertly photographed by Roger Deakins, who uses a broad range of colors and shadows to help amplify the drama in the film, even if most shots are relegated to medium close-ups of the various actors. Additionally, Deakins employs the “Dutch tilt,” a method of tilting the camera so many degrees, to reframe characters at key dramatic moments.
Production and costume design creates a perfectly insular world; classrooms and offices are filled with sumptuous details and the costuming of each character is photographed beautifully. While “Doubt” may have functioned better as a play, given its multitude of intense moments that build off of dramatic interchanges as opposed to visual ideas.
The strength of Shanley’s film is his refusal to resolve the heated emotions. In the battle between Aloysius and Flynn, it never really ends up mattering if Flynn is guilty or not, and the film never tells one way or the other. By opting to remain ambiguous, the film elevates itself to an exploration of the degrees of how we perceive others.
“Doubt” is one of the most well-acted, well-written films of the year, brimming with intelligence and overflowing with controlled, heated emotions. It may seem simple, but it never betrays its own core.