When he adapted and subsequently helmed the 2008 big screen version of his own successful stage play Doubt: A Parable, John Patrick Shanley surrounded himself with an array of talent – Roger Deakins, Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Viola Davis, Howard Shore – and he drew impressive work from all of those mentioned. The four actors in that list all received Oscar nominations, and while Deakins’ cinematography for this film is perhaps less eye-catching than we’ve seen recently – save for that during one flight of fancy in which thousands of feathers rain down on a New York street, later echoed in a scene in which Streep is caught up in a storm of windswept leaves – it’s still impressive for a number of reasons: the images are crisp, the muted colour palette reflects the 1960s period setting, and there’s an excellent control of light as it pours into darkened rooms. This is a film about abuse within the Catholic Church – a mini-genre in itself – and interestingly it’s concerned with observation and belief, addressing the way in which people can turn a blind eye to events occurring in plain sight in front of them, and how it’s easier to refuse to believe something is true when mounting evidence points to the contrary. The ‘doubt’ in question surrounds the legitimacy of a confident, well-respected and well-liked priest who is possibly using his position of authority to abuse a child, though as you might expect it also applies to existential crises of faith endured by some of the characters involved. Is he guilty or is he the victim of a gossipy smear campaign, as he argues? And if he is guilty, where is God while abuse plays out across His churches? Well, Shanley’s film doesn’t go too far in addressing that second question, but there are subtle hints that incidents as common as thunder storms or lightbulbs blowing out are actually a form of crucial divine intervention (or, of course, it might simply be a thunderstorm or a lightbulb blowing out).
The priest is played by Hoffman, while Streep and Adams have the marginally more interesting roles as a pair of nuns who work at a school adjacent to his church (where Streep’s character serves as the principal). She is initially painted as the villain of the piece, an austere, authoratative dragon who’s out of step with the decade in question, clipping the ears of snoozing children during mass and handing out punishments as if her afterlife depended on it. Watching Streep and Shanley gradually mould the character into a sympathetic, concerned matriarch and dogged, determined sleuth – essentially doing the same investigative job as the team in Spotlight, albeit on a much smaller scale – is one of the highlights of the film, although the extreme contrast with Adams’ initially-meek teacher is as predictable as the latter’s gradual transformation into a confident successor to and equal of the older nun. The thread of seeing and observing is manifest in various ways via the characters played by Adams and Streep: the witnessing of brief glimpses of Hoffman’s inappropriate closeness with a young altar boy named Donald Miller (Joseph Foster), for example, or the way in which both spot things others miss, or seemingly have eyes in the back of their heads during classes. As mentioned above – and indicated by the title of the film – doubt is another major theme, and at one point the plot hinges on a character’s interpretation of things she sees, and who she believes and allies with subsequently. Despite the common ground with Spotlight – a wider network of paedophilia is uncovered here – a closer cousin to Doubt is Dead Poet’s Society, which shares a traditional educational establishment setting, grandstanding scenes in which figures of authority clash in offices, and a parent who turns a blind eye to the plight of a son, in this case played memorably by Viola Davis. She’s only on screen for five minutes but does as much as anyone to earn that Academy Award nomination. Worth watching, especially due to the quality of the acting.
Directed by: John Patrick Shanley.
Written by: John Patrick Shanley.
Starring: Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Viola Davis, Alice Drummond.
Cinematography: Roger Deakins.
Editing: Dylan Tichenor.
Music: Howard Shore.
Running Time: 104 minutes.