Doubt (2008)


Doubt is a superb movie. John Patrick Shanley, who wrote the long-running stage play, adapts his inspired, austerely beautiful script for the movie version and directs. There are no weak acting performances, one majestic one, and three wonderful ones: Meryl Streep as Sister Aloysius is peerless in this most fundamental drama about no less than the mysterious and overwhelming Human Condition set in a Catholic elementary school circa 1960; Philip Seymour Hoffman as Father Brendan Flynn is as wonderful as ever; Amy Adams as Sister James and Viola Davis as Mrs. Miller are unfalteringly convincing. Were Davis not so in her one brief scene, the entire drama would collapse. Shanley has admitted as much.

I’m surprised, following my watching of the movie and, after that, a brief visit to some of the Usual Suspect film critics, at the doubts about Doubt: there are no doubts about it being a notable film; but there are various doubts about what it dramatizes. I don’t think there ought to be such confusion, unsurprising as it is given that this confusion is the irresistible and delicious revenge of Shanley on today’s adherents to the present version of the ever-present Social Correctness. Maybe he’s finally written a popular play and movie script because of hard-earned contempt for much of his audience. Narrative is almost always done by nasty jokesters, no matter how much they might differ in time, place, experience and the rest. But otherwise, we’d not relish it nearly as much. Let him or her poke fun at us as long as it is finally transporting.

Doubt has something in common with the great Butler dramas like Upstairs Downstairs and The Remains of the Day. It is about Precious Remains among the Ruins. It is about clinging to the surface of the Earth lest we spin Out There to Wherever Dark.

And there should be in the cineplex lobby blocking immediate access to the showing room a great, fat arrow pointing to a cut out figure in scale of Saint Aloysius, a Jesuit who lived in the 1500s and died young, for he is among Catholic saints the Patron of Youth. That history should be more than enough of a sign from Shanley to us, a sign given us in refined ironical storytelling to be enjoyed immensely as well as to be found bracingly wise. In Doubt Shanley, a maverick, delights, I think, in making it easiest for Martian visitors to identify the real hero. Of course, you can keep up with the Martians by recalling the purpose for which Aloysius was canonized and then…well, it’s obvious.

The plot, very briefly and, I hope, without being a spoiler: Father Flynn, a thirtyish progressive-minded Catholic priest, is suspected by Sister Aloysius, a fortyish conservative nun and headmistress of the teaching nuns at the parochial school in Flynn’s parish church in a New York setting, of molesting the only African American boy student at the grade school, the suspicion aroused by behavior noticed by the boy’s history teacher, Sister James, a fine and kind as well as pivotal and complex person who reports most of her observations to Sister Aloysius. With no help from anyone above her, the fierce Sister Aloysius “gets rid” of the highly intelligent and gifted Father Flynn, compelling him to leave the school in a truly masterful sub-drama in which she outmaneuvers and out thinks him. It is a most engrossing drama.

There has been considerable questioning among viewers as to Father Flynn’s guilt or lack of guilt. Did he seduce the boy? Shanley doesn’t allow the camera to show directly, in the act, whether he did or did not. However, if you see this movie, I believe that an ingenious, successful, entrapping ploy by Sister Aloysius–the proverbial inspired chess move in her gripping duel with Father Flynn–will give you the true sense here that Shanley wonders whether you’ll be able to see (and being ornery, might not especially care whether you do or do not) and which, something like Poe’s purloined letter, he lays right out there for you to see if you can diminish the Correct reaction about such matters many now are seeking to make sure you have.

One important matter to note: Sister Aloysius became a nun unusually late in life, after her husband was killed in World War Two in Italy. In the final scene, she confesses she too has doubts. The typical interpretation has been that she doubts her ousting of Father Flynn. That, however, is far from her doubt in this final lacerating scene, for she remains more than convinced she was right about Flynn and acted fittingly. Like Hudson, the butler in Upstairs Downstairs, she fights with all her considerable wit and skill to stand in front of the Ongoing Change, History Itself, and slow if not stop it. After what happened in Italy and all the dreadful times which have been her times, she has become an archetypal conservative, not politically–this is everything but a political drama–but rather as a cultural traditionalist like many of us. Shanley makes certain that there are a few moments of real charm and humor from this mother tigress who cannot possibly succeed in saving her most beloved traditions and will be swept away in the relentless flood. The Church (much more, of course, than merely The Church) is changing. The politics of Father Flynn’s earthly salvation after Sister Aloysius “gets rid” of him bring that home to her, crushingly. But she is all of us, faults and Quixotic nobility. (Meryl Streep’s superb acting as Kate Mundy in the movie version of Dancing at Lughnasa, Irish playwright Brian Friel’s play about the pathos of temporality [as Thomas Wolfe puts it], has her playing a character similar to Sister Aloysius.)

More specifically: playwrights have their advantages.

Shanley retains the small maneuvering room of the stage drama in Doubt; and, as in its stage version, everything in the movie must be constrained yet say a lot. It’s a joy to see a masterful creation of art in a small space. It seems as though every last detail counts and is rendered acutely consciously to make for the unbroken, smooth unity of the whole story. Some of the needed creative skills are displayed, directly and indirectly, in that series of Picasso’s sketches of bulls in which he progressively uses fewer strokes and creates increasingly compelling bulls. He understands how you see things and that less can be more.

After watching the film and thinking more about it here at my favorite bar, Club Paradise, the dim place almost empty on a quiet afternoon, these appreciations–only a few of the many–seemed worth sharing with the old bartender who migrated here from Dublin when he was just a kid:

1. That toy dancer (now you’d probably only find one or two at an antiques show) Father Flynn gives the African American altar boy, Donald Miller, when they are alone in the Rectory near the beginning of the movie, works this way: When you put your hand almost on the toy dancer, your hand holding a magnet, the dancer straightens up and dances. Flynn shows Donald, then says, “You do it.” Compelling in a stage play. Circumstantial in a courtroom; a good Prosecuting Attorney, though, might well say to Flynn: “That looks very practiced to me, Father. And that particular toy seems to be an unusual gift, wouldn’t you agree, Father? (“Objection!”) (You, a member of the jury, will be startled when you see that toy; you’re supposed to be.) “Please tell the court, Father, did you at some point in the past buy several of those toys at once?” Later, that toy, when Donald’s book pack is jostled from him by mischievous boys in a school corridor, falls out and is broken. Shanley could have picked many different symbols here; this one seems alone worth more than double the entire symbol-nonsense of The Da Vinci Code.

2. More Compelling/Circumstantial in the confined space of the stage-drama: Sister Aloysius, looking out her window one day, sees a student named “William London” break from the strong grasp of Father Flynn’s hand on his forearm and turn and walk away. It’s clear from other brief moments on camera by London, played by a most expressive young actor, that he is already very secular-minded, normal, and unlikely to end up a devout Catholic man. He’ll, in fact, probably become anti-Catholic, if he hasn’t already become so, as seen in another moment when he contemplates the school disgustedly. So…obviously it’s very good of Shanley, elementary, to name this boy “William London” rather than, say, “William Dublin” or “William Rome.”

3. Note that people in the story seem frequently to be closing windows against big storms. One storm, with the biggest winds in memory, breaks a large tree limb which falls on and injures an old nun with fading vision of whom Sister Aloysius is fond and protective. Mysteriously, Sister Aloysius’s ceiling light in her office goes out. Given Sister Aloysius’s obsessive protectionism against Change itself, Shanley is beautifully selective in such matters. Note too that the transistor radio Sister Aloysius confiscates from an errant student becomes a favorite diversion for her; she’s being changed by Change herself; and, of course, finally she hasn’t a chance of reversing The Tide. For such mastery, we’ll have to send a complimentary drink to Shanley sitting alone morosely at the end of the bar.

4. Sister James. St. James the Less is venerated in Catholicism as a meek, humble, devoted soul.

5. Shanley, who says he went to a school exactly like the one in Doubt, has further said: (1) One of his relatives was molested by a pedophile priest in a Catholic school; (2) He would almost like to renounce his name, “Shanley,” since, as he grants in an interview, perhaps the most notorious of the priest-pedophiles is the now imprisoned Father “Paul Shanley” (and no relation but merely a nominal connection playwright Shanley clearly and publicly despises); and (3) the problem with the scandals that erupted in the past dozen or so years in the Catholic church has been the tendency by the heirarchy to cover-up the outrages. Apropos: For me Sister Aloysius’s ultimate doubt turns on her strong intimations already in the 1960s of the coming disaster dramatized in The Wreck of the Deutschland.

6. There is obviously a great difference in atmosphere and mood between the scene of the priests’ dinner and the scene of the nuns’ dinner, the history of the Rectory and the history of the Nunnery.

7. This is not finally a drama about the Catholic church or, really, about religion, it seems to me; it is about Homo sapiens’ losing battle with History. I believe it’s a masterstroke by Shanley to stage the final scene as he does. Both Sister Aloysius and Sister James are losing confidence in being able to bolt down the place, those windows, and finally the social institution itself, Society, against The Storm. Better send Shanley another drink. But he deserves it.

Don’t miss Doubt.