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Doubt was probably a very good play. It’s not a bad movie, but it feels filmed rather than adapted. Maybe next time playwright John Patrick Shanley should hire someone else to write and direct the movie instead of doing it himself.

Say it Ain’t So

Streep upstages Hoffman ... for now
Streep upstages Hoffman ... for now

Shanley adapts his play for the screen and also directs Doubt, in which Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep) tries to drive out the new priest in town, Father Brendan (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Sister Aloysius is the principal at the Catholic school where Father Brendan is the priest (he teaches gym on weekdays). She suspects him of starting an inappropriate relationship with a boy, the first black child admitted to the school. It is winter 1963; President Kennedy’s assassination is in the news.

The boy’s mother tells Sister Aloysius that her son needs a father figure because his father is disgusted by his homosexual tendencies. Father Brendan is happy to be a father figure, but whether he wants the boy that way is an open question. Hoffman’s history of playing sexually dubious characters makes him a great choice for the role, because, as the very title tells us, we will never know whether the accusations against Father Brendan are true.

Since we don’t know the Father’s heart, he is a Macguffin in the story, which really makes Doubt a movie about Sisters Aloysius and James. Should they drive out this potentially dangerous man? Or should they give him the benefit of the doubt? Is the safety of the children the most important thing, or is more wrong to judge a man without any proof.

The Play’s the Thing

Doubt is a very good character study, particularly when it comes to the Sisters. Each has her own motives, and they act accordingly. You can almost see the gears turning in their heads when they act. Whatever she says, Sister James just wants a return to normalcy and stability, and Sister Aloysius sees herself as the real head of the parish. These motives drive their deeds, regardless of want they want everyone else to think.

Such solid character development is rare in a movie; less so in a play. But some stagey aspects of this drama don’t play as well on the big screen. The look is stagey. The dialogue is wordy and stilted (but good: “Where is your compassion?” “Nowhere you can get at it!”). The dialogue is heavy with belabored metaphors (“it takes a cat,” “the wind has changed”). In the scene of highest drama, Sister Aloysius and and Father Brendan try to upstage each other using props and lighting. All this makes Doubt easy to read — which is satisfying — but it’s all spelled out for you — which is less satisfying.

Big Questions

The film sometimes feels heavyhanded, even though it doesn’t have a specific ax to grind. That’s because Shanley’s metaphors and themes are front and center. “Doubt” is the opposite of “faith,” yet as Sister Aloysius illustrates, both concepts imply an absence of evidence. Doubt is often the safer approach when you don’t have all the facts, and yet setting the film in a Catholic hierarchy implies that faith has a higher value to these characters. And why set the action right after Kennedy’s death?

Father Brendan explains his take on “doubt” by preaching a sermon that says we can never know the future, but at least we’re all in it together, as a community. In short, doubt means that we should stick together and be mutually supportive... with the unspoken coda “unlike some Sisters I could name.”

I’m guessing Shanley set out to provoke conversation, and in that he probably succeeded, even if Doubt isn’t a cinematic powerhouse. If he had wanted that, he could have hired someone other than a playwright to direct.