Stage Doubt, Screen Doubt

On Broadway, Doubt -- the story of a steely nun facing off against a heroic priest, whom she fixates on for giving special attention to the school’s only black (effeminate) kid -- worked because of a top notch cast and its unique brand of stylized narrative. If only the excellent Meryl Streep and Viola Davis were enough to make the movie work quite so well.

BY Don Shewey

December 18 2008 1:00 AM ET

 DOUBT MerYL Streep PHILLIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN X390 (Miramax) | ADVOCATE.COM

The play sustains
its psychological suspense because a live theater
audience accepts stylized narrative as a matter of course.
If only Shanley, as director of the movie version of
Doubt, had stuck to that particular literary
exercise, the movie could have been a tight, claustrophobic
drama (like the best movies based on David Mamet or
Harold Pinter scripts). He certainly had a powerhouse
cast. Meryl Streep proves that you don’t have
to be a powerhouse lesbian to play Sister Aloysius. (While
Cherry Jones was playing the role on Broadway, Linda
Hunt was playing it in L.A.) But of course after
The Devil Wears Prada and The Manchurian
Candidate
, the only way Meryl could have stretched
herself would have been to take a cue from Linda Hunt
and played Father Flynn, a role to which Philip Seymour
Hoffman brings a charmlessness that keeps you from
letting him off the hook.

Amy Adams is fine
as the baby nun who gets caught in the middle of their
showdown, but Viola Davis (one of New York’s great
stage actresses) steals the movie with her one scene
as the black student’s mother, who blows the
principal’s mind with her instinctive grasp of what
options are open to an effeminate black gay boy.

The problem is
that Shanley, a novice filmmaker who cashed in his
Moonstruck chips to direct the notorious 1990
flopola Joe vs. the Volcano, makes a bunch of
novice-filmmaker mistakes. He surrounds the play’s
four iconic characters with dozens of characters
(kids, nuns, parishioners) and then gives them nothing
to do except drain away any mystery with literal-minded
period detail. And the director overloads the movie
with tastelessly obvious symbolism in an attempt to be
“cinematic.”

Just in case you
didn’t know what kind of game the priest and the nun
are playing, he inserts a cat catching a mouse. Just
in case you didn’t get the point that Winds of
Change are blowing through the Catholic Church,
Shanley has them blowing down branches and pouring through
the windows of the fortress which Sister Aloysius
defends against ballpoint pens and “Frosty the
Snowman.” All that hokum detracts from the central
drama -- in fact, makes it look all the more
phony-baloney.

Tags: film

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