Thursday, December 18, 2008
Movie Review: Doubt
directed by: John Patrick Shanley
I have been more excited about Doubt than most any movie being released this Oscar season for many reasons. First of all, being a theatre actor since age 6, I was highly familiar with the Pulitzer Prize winning play, and being a huge fan of Meryl Streep, Amy Adams, and Phillip Seymore Hoffman I figured I would be in for an acting masterclass. However there has been some (sorry) doubt surrounding the film version. In particular Meryl Streep (who by many is considered the finest actress of all time) recieved some mixed reviews saying she was a weak link and brought the film down, at the same time she has won a couple acting awards so far this season. And we all know that taking a theatre piece and moving it to the big screen can be very tricky (look at every Shakespeare remake except Titus and Brannaghs versions). So going into the film I had high expectations, but was wary to say the least.
Let me be the first to tell you - never fear - this movie is outstanding in EVERY possible way. Folks, they is not a flaw to be found here. The story revolves around the Saint Nicholas Catholic school. At the center of the plot is Father Flynn (Hoffman) who is interested in moving the school towards a more friendly/secular place of worship and learning. Standing in his way is one of the most monstrous characters in the history of literature, Sister Aloysious (Streep). She is the principle nun of the school and runs things with an iron fist. Controversy flames when innocent Sister James (Adams) brings suspicions to the mind of Aloysious that Father Flynn has given the sole african american student some holy wine in the privacy of his own quarters. Let the rumors start flying. In an age where the Catholic church has been tainted with numerous molestation and child abuse scandals, it is no wonder that Sister Aloysious becomes highly concerned and driven to find the truth behind the "friendly" father. What follows is an all out war between the Father and the Nun. Did he do it? Didn't he? And brilliantly the script allows you to answer that question for yourself ultimately.
Let's get to the reason for the film. The acting showcases. Let's start with Meryl who has been given somewhat a bad wrap (or brilliant wrap depending on what youre reading). The role is definately that of a monster, no matter what side of the fence you fall on reguarding the guilt of the father. She is Nurse Ratchid in a nuns habit. Shes Michael Meyers without the butchers knife. Truly the character is ruthless at finding out the truth, and when she has decided the guilt for herself she will stop at nothing. In Meryl's hands the role is handled masterfully. (Note: I have not seen the origionater of the role Cherry Jones portray the sister on Broadway, so I cannot compare. But I feel the comparison isn't a fair one to either actress) Meryl brings some humor to the humorless, perhaps her most fantastic trait as an actress. She can make even the darkest bitch somewhat likeable. However as the film continues the sister turns devilish, and you wonder who the true enemy is. But she has her moments of humility, if you know where to look. She cares for her fellow nuns, and her actions all grow from a 'love' for the children of the school. She wants to protect them. Protect them from pedophiles and from ball point pens.
Phillip Seymore Hoffman (one of the actors I respect most in the industry) is truly phenomenal here. As Father Flynn he plays his most likeable character ever. He is often known to play the sleazeball (check him out in Boogie Nights, or as the truly evil writer Truman Capote in his Oscar winning role), and here he is cast as a possible child abuser, an untrustworthy priest, and he comes off as the most likeable person in the film. Its truly shocking what he's done here. You want to believe him the entire time, even if you don't. There is always a certain ammount of anger piled behind the cool facade, and when he lets loose its truly a sight to behold. Not being a church-goer myself, but having listened to hundreds of sermons as a child, Phillip Seymore Hoffman's father Flynn is the type of pastor I would like to listen too. The scenes in the film where he delivers his three sermons are some of the best, especially the one which compares rumors to the feathers in a pillow.
Amy Adams is fast growing to be one of my favorite screen actresses, and in this film she reaches heights I didn't know she had in her. In a way it is sad that the other 3 actors in the film are recieving such high praise and that Adams is always forth mentioned, if at all (however as of late she is recieving nominations and even a win in some critical awards). I had read her role was underused and she wasn't given much to do. This couldn't be farther from the truth. Adams is unbelievable in this film. As sister James she is all bubbles and light, smiles and puppies. This is all the more effective as we get to see that facade break down in front of our eyes. Within the span of two hours we see sister James transform from the innocent soft spoken sweetheart, to the conspirator in the downfall of the father (she in fact is the reason behind the doubt), then into a sympathetic believing ear for the priest, back to doubtful, then to a slowly transforming replica of the mean-spirited principle, and on and on. The growth in the character could have been stereotypical or boring with any other actress, but Amy Adams refuses to let the role plateau. In many scenes she more than holds her own with the legendary Streep.
And finally we have Viola Davis. She may be known best for her work on Law and Order Criminal Intent, and her various lauded Broadway credits. However, not anymore. She has taken the awards scene by storm this year with her role as Mrs. Miller in Doubt. Before seeing the film I knew that Viola had only one scene, it was 10 minutes long, and many predicted her to win an Oscar. It made me harken back to the days when Judi Dench won the Oscar for best supporting actress for her 7 minute stint in "Shakespeare in Love". Dench is a great actress yes, but this was no Oscar worthy material. I was afraid of the same thing with Viola. Even as she walked onscreen I wondered if all the hype would be worth it, after I had seen Amy, Meryl, and Phillip act their asses off for over an hour. She completely squashed all those worries. I will say it now: Not only does Viola Davis deserve the Oscar for her role in this film, she completely stole the film for the brief time she appeared. Just as Amy Adams changed throughout as Sister James, my attitude towards Viola Davis (as the mother of the boy in question) changed various times. I didn't know whether to call her the worst mother ever, or give her a crown and septer as the world's best mother. And perhaps her biggest success in the film was she completely out-acted Meryl Streep (not that its a competition). In her scene, you only focus on what she is saying, what she is doing, and why she is doing it. I can't say enough how amazing she was.
Put simply, the movie is like sitting down to watch a series of "how its done" acting workshops. You are seeing the best actors acting off of each other in the best possible way. As an actor, its the most satisfying movie I have seen in years, not a weak link in sight. Also I believe that Doubt is the finest translation from stage to screen I have ever seen. As I sat in the dark movie theatre, I forgot where I was, and it honestly at times felt like I was watching a play. There is an aura and feeling of the theatre that I felt in this film, and that's its truest success. It was a faithful and successful translation of the highest grade. I would recommend you see this film, and I would recommend you see it now.
***** out of *****
Note: Now that I have praised the shit out of Doubt, I will tell you its one flaw. The last line. Whew. That was a bad way to end --- but didn't ruin the experience for me at all.