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Film Review: Doubt

Doubt (2008; Directed by John Patrick Shanley)

Here’s a pithy summary quote to be going on with: Doubt left me in doubt.

John Patrick Shanley’s film adaptation of his own play is certainly well-acted. Meryl Streep in particular is a firebrand as a steely religious-school headmistress, and Viola Davis has a killer scene with her that earned the latter the first of her two Oscar nominations. It’s likewise well-constructed, a tight litany of intimate, direct scenes that drives home its central point: people are complex and you can never judge them without at least trying to understand them.

But, like a lot of essentially filmed plays (Mike Nichols’ wildly overpraised and interminable Closer comes immediately to mind), there’s a sense of visual limitation to the composition and an overstated directness to the dialogue that grates more than it inspires. Doubt‘s great deluge of dialogue is certainly a common feature of theatrically-sourced material like this, but like Closer, its characters don’t speak to each other so much as evacuate every conceivable thought and sentiment from each deepest crevice of their beings.

A trusty trick of mine in diagnosing terminally overwrought serious-theatre writing of the sort that afflicts Doubt is to try to imagine what characters would say to each other if they dispensed with realistic human dissembling and tactful privacy and vocalized precisely what they were thinking or feeling (at least eventually, some dramatic delay must be expected). If they say it, bad writing; if they say something else that might indicate that or can be taken to mean that, or if they don’t say it at all or even come out with quite the opposite, good writing. People don’t tend to tell each other how they really feel, despite the insistence of playwrights that they often do. Granted, this view could be considered a matter of preference for one of two particular writing styles, each equally valid enough. But I see it in more black-and-white terms, and Shanley’s writing in this film falls on the black side of the equation.

The point of the film is that doubt is vital, not only in considering contentious accusations of misbehaviour but also in one’s attitude to authority and to belief. The problem is that Shanley’s script leaves so little room for doubt on that point that it seems to be placed more on the side of Sister Aloysius’ withering religious certainty than on the side of enlightened complexity. To put it otherwise, my greatest issue, to risk redundant repetition, is that Doubt has no doubt about its doubt.

Still, the classy realism of the film’s setting and the committed performances of its central trio of actors (Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams ably hold up against Streep’s thespianic scorched-earth policy) do much to carry the film beyond its hermeneutic issues. Even the push-button central issue of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church does not overwhelm the drama or the core themes. But after all, is Doubt a great film? I doubt it is.

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