In the fall of 1987 I attended my first day of kindergarten. Until June 1990 on my last day of second grade I attended Assumption School in Seattle. A Catholic school. The stereotypes were nowhere in sight. I didn't have any nuns for teachers, I never had my fingers smacked by a ruler, nor did I ever see such a thing happen to anyone else. I wore a uniform to school every day, with the exception of the first Monday of every month ("Free Dress Day"), but it never struck me as strange. After all I didn't know any different anyway. Like me, John Patrick Shanley attended Catholic school, though in a decidedly different time.
"Doubt," which Shanley ("Joe Vs. the Volcano") wrote and directed, shows us the world of a New York City Catholic school in 1964, just as things there were beginning to change. It is appropriate then that when we first see Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman), he is delivering a sermon about the assassination of President Kennedy, an event that sparked everlasting change. Flynn speaks of how it bonded Americans together as nothing had in some time. He also speaks of how it might have led some to doubt things about their faith and how "doubt can be a bond as powerful as certainty."
As he delivers this very sermon, Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep) is keeping kids in line, slapping heads down the row. As principal of the school, she has authority over everyone and everything, except Father Flynn. She doesn't care for his gentle nature, nor his long finger nails. The young and caring Sister James (Amy Adams) teaches history to the eighth grade class, which includes the school's first black student, a boy named Donald Miller (Joseph Foster). Sister James becomes suspicious when Father Flynn calls Donald to the rectory one afternoon and when Sister Aloysius hears of it she becomes convinced the worst has happened. She has no proof of anything, but she insists she has her "certainty."
From beginning to end "Doubt" is as absorbing as a film can be. As Sister Aloysius embarks on her campaign against Flynn we start to ask serious questions. We wonder about the priest's guilt or innocence. Like Sister James we don't want to believe it's true but there is a part of us, maybe big, maybe small, that believes Aloysius may be correct after all. For me at least, a large part of why I didn't want to believe it was due to it meaning that Aloysius would be correct. I have not so loathed a character since, ironically, Meryl Streep's in "The Devil Wears Prada." "Doubt" is most definitely a more serious minded film, but Streep pours herself into this character just as fully. It is yet another powerful performance from arguably the greatest actress in film history.
Hoffman is absolutely incredible. We like Flynn, we want him to be proven innocent, yet he keeps those around him, and thus the audience, at a distance. In each facial expression, each moment, Hoffman gives us reasons to believe and doubt Flynn at the same time. Sister James meanwhile struggles with being the kind of teacher and person she wants to be, and being what the experienced Aloysius demands. The question of Flynn's guilt or innocence is at the very heart of this struggle. In many ways she has more riding on this than anyone. Adams embodies this struggle with incredible subtlety. As Donald's mother, Viola Davis only has a few scenes but she knocks them out of the park, holding her own with Streep.
Every performance in this film is outstanding, right down to the kids who only have a couple of lines. We see them as real people, three dimensional in an instant. This is also due in large part to Shanley's writing. Based on his own play, each character in "Doubt" is fully formed and the film contains arguably the best dialogue of 2008.
As a Catholic I'm pleased to say I don't see a negative view of faith from "Doubt." I saw a highly engaging and intelligent look into the world of these characters.
Between this and "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," 2008 is finishing remarkably strong. Do not miss this film. It is currently in wide release. 10/10.
Here's a great scene to give you a taste: