Wednesday, December 24, 2008

On Doubt

Bringing a play to the big screen is always a tenuous task. In some cases, the restrictive nature of the stage hinders its celluloid interpretation, which forces the filmmaker to 'open up' the play, which seems to further dilute the power of the written word in the first place. I'm not thinking of any play-to-film specifically. But when it does work exceptionally well- i.e. pretty much any Mamet but especially "Glengarry Glen Ross" or Clifford Odets' "The Big Knife" or most of Neil Simon- very little can compare to the kinetic energy thrown off by the ensemble cast. That's pretty much the case with John Patrick Shanley's "Doubt". From the opening scene where Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is delivering a sermon about doubt and moral uncertainty (what else), this film sank its hooks in me. More than a review, I just wanted to jot down a few thoughts about this film.

1. Even though I didn't grow up in the specific milieu of "Doubt" (mid 1960's New York), I am a Catholic and did serve as an alter boy, so the familiarity of tradition, ritual and respect hit home immediately.
2. Granted, this is an actor's movie. Sit back and enjoy the sparks that fly between Meryl Streep and Hoffman as opposing sides of a belief. But more than that, I read Shanley's attempt as a direct confrontation between progressive religious ideals and the more traditional, stoic outlook on Catholicism. This is highlighted in quite entertaining flourishes as we successively witness the male priests drinking, smoking and telling jokes, and then cut to the solemn and quiet meal between the nuns- complete with milk and neatly divided foods on their plates.
3. The common complaint with "Doubt" is Shanley's obvious moral uncertainty about which side he falls on. Did Father Flynn really commit the actions Sister Aloyious (Streep) firmly believes he did? Or is it something completely fabricated since she opposes his modern flair for niceties? I couldn't care less what Shanley believes. Part of the intensity in watching "Doubt" is how subtly certain points are drawn. I have a pretty good idea what I think took place, but that interpretation could be diametrically opposed to what the person sitting next to me felt. As a conversation starter, "Doubt" situates itself precariously in the middle and one idea from one person could tip it one way or the other. There's certainly nothing wrong with a cinematic experience opening up numerous channels of dialogue. We need more of that today.
4. Viola Davis' one scene with Meryl Streep as the mother of the boy believed to be involved in the film's central conundrum, is definitely everything you've read about. She will receive an Oscar nomination, but don't let the powerhouse acting obfuscate the meaning of her scene. So much is said in very little and shaded ways. I found myself so wrapped up in her performance as an emotionally distraught mother that I may have missed the real explanation.
5. Damn Amy Adams is adorable. But then "The Office" should have taught me that.


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