Saturday, January 31, 2009

The Unsure Thing

The Oscar noms are out (see elsewhere on this blog for the full list), so it's time to get caught up on any of the big award-season films you might have missed. For example, there's this one with a whole wheelbarrow full of acting nods. I believe it's called ...

Doubt (d. John Patrick Shanley)

I get a bit worried when I encounter people who are 100% sure of things that no one could possibly know. Like, the deepest mechanisms of the cosmos, for example. Or the will of all-powerful, unknowable super-beings. Or when my beloved Cubs are going to play in a World Series.

Some things are beyond human ken.

I'm much more comfortable with doubt. It seems to me that skepticism is a far more natural and healthy and fruitful state for the human mind than rock-solid certainty. After all, if you already know the answer, there's not much point in bothering to ask the question anymore, is there?

All of which inevitably leads to religion which in turn brings us to John Patrick Shanley's latest, Doubt, an adaptation of his stage play of the same name.

At a Catholic school in the Bronx in the mid 1960s, things are changing. The new priest, Father Flynn, has progressive ideas -- he calls them "friendly." The school has recently admitted its first black student and Father Flynn has taken a special interest in the boy. Meanwhile, the longtime headmistress of the school, Sister Aloysius, views Father Flynn suspiciously. She's no fan of change, doesn't approve of the way he comports himself and begins to wonder if the special interest he has shown the new boy might not have led to something untoward. Is she just a strict old fossil projecting her distaste onto an innocent relationship, or is there some substance to her fears?

She's sure of herself. She's certain about what's going on. She can't prove anything, but what does that matter when she already has her answer?

Father Flynn dismisses the allegations as nonsense, but he does seem to squirm and sweat when questioned. And if all is as innocent as he claims, why is he so evasive on simple factual matters?

Caught between these two is the young nun Sister James who likes the new priest and his progressive notions, but feels duty-bound to her superior, the headmistress. She's eager to believe that Father Flynn is innocent of any wrongdoing, but she's also troubled when scraps of circumstantial evidence begin to mount against him.

If all this sounds a bit stagy and talky, that's because it is. Director Shanley does what he can to expand writer Shanley's play into a more cinematic setting, moving action out of doors and all through the school and its church, but this is a piece about contending and disputing over the tiniest nuances of motivation and behavior. It can't shake its static, talking heads nature.

That's a problem, but not an insurmountable one. The debate in Doubt is fascinating, and the characters who hash it out each bring passion and smarts to their positions.

As Sister Aloysius, Meryl Streep projects hard-bitten confidence, not only in her faith, but in the way things work. With her thick Bronx accent and her icy stare, she faces down problems through a combination of routine and experience. She's a tough old bird who knows the score.

Phillip Seymour Hoffman plays Father Flynn as a spiritual cousin to his shady businessman from last year's Before the Devil Knows You're Dead. Like that earlier character, he can be perfectly charming until the pressure starts to rise. Then he shifts and dodges and starts making bad choices, digging the hole deeper with every move he makes.

And then there's Amy Adams as Sister James. She doesn't get the bravura scenery-chewing moments that her two co-stars revel in. Instead, her character is the fulcrum the priest and the headmistress try to use against one another in an attempt to gain leverage. She just wants everyone to get along.

It's the performances of these three principles -- along with a killer scene from Viola Davis as the mother of the school's only black student -- that elevate Doubt to become something more than just a filmed record of a decent play. In the hands of these skilled actors, the piece is a remarkable contest of intelligence and devotion. It's a quest for the truth.

And the only people who would even bother to quest for the truth are those who have a little bit of doubt.

3 1/2 stars.

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