02 Feb 2009
What happened between Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Donald Miller (Joseph Foster) in the rectory?
Neither one is saying, but Sister James (Amy Adams) is concerned the boy came back to class flushed, with alcohol on his breath.
Run time 104 mins
Born: 22 Jun 1949
Summit, New Jersey
Sister James is young and naïve, but not that naïve. She hesitantly takes her suspicion to Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep), the principal at St Mary’s. Sister Aloysius is neither young nor naïve, and unlike Sister James, she has taken a staunch dislike to Father Flynn, with his modern, progressive ideas and wishy-washy sermons. We are in the Bronx, 1964 and the Sister is fighting a valiant effort against the incursion of such pagan idolatry as Frosty the Snowman and ballpoint pens – both of which are fine by Flynn. She seizes the bull by the horns, so to speak. But Flynn is adamant and appalled. And where is the proof?
John Patrick Shanley won an Oscar for his first produced screenplay, Moonstruck (1987), with Cher and a young, hot Nicolas Cage. Five Corners and The January Man marked him as a quirky talent, then he tried his hand at directing with the big, old fashioned, idiosyncratic Joe Versus The Volcano, a movie nobody knew what to make of back then (and which lost money) but which lots of people seem to look back on with fondness.
He also wrote the screenplays for Alive and Congo, before he was waylaid by eye disease for several years. For the most part he’s concentrated on the theatre – culminating in the Pulitzer and Tony winning play, Doubt: A Parable.
The movie version arrives on these shores with Oscar nominations for all its principal actors (Meryl Streep, Amy Adams, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Viola Davis – who has just one, pivotal scene as Mrs Miller, Donald’s mother), plus one for Shanley?s adapted screenplay. But he didn’t get a best director nomination, nor is the film up for best picture.
That seems about right to me – though Hoffman?s role is hardly a supporting gig, and as I say, Viola Davis is in just one scene, so it’s an extraordinarily elastic category. As a showcase for fine acting, the film can’t be faulted. As a movie, it’s more of a mixed bag, a mechanical contraption designed to goose your prejudices and then dump you into a vat of bubbling ambiguity, it might have been written by Terrence Rattigan 50 years ago (granted, he would have had to be more circumspect).
Doubt: Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman
Shanley obviously decided to direct to protect his play, but his attempts to open up the material and let some air blow through it range from the banal to the bizarre. There’s some cursory attempt to locate the school in a wider working class neighbourhood. Some scenes have been taken outside – the scene between Sister Aloysius and Mrs Miller is a walk-and-talk, and works very well that way. A brief sequence contrasting the meals of the nuns (frugal, disciplined, austere) and the priests (hearty, relaxed, jocular) speaks volumes.
But when Shanley illustrates one of Father Flynn’s sermons on invidious gossip by making his metaphor literal – a woman stabs a pillow on a roof and feathers fly everywhere – the sequence is striking, but distractingly flamboyant. At random moments director of photography Roger Deakins (or maybe it was the second unit?) throws in a kinky close up from a grotesquely twisted angle, as if we were looking at medieval gargoyles on a church tower. Shanley even implies (jokingly?) divine intervention with such hoary devices as dramatic gusts of wind and defective light bulbs.
Streep is fiercely effective, appropriately theatrical and wickedly funny. She seems to know it's malarkey and acts accordingly.
This pseudo solemnity is all very odd but fairly entertaining. If you need someone to play a maybe dodgy priest, you probably couldn’t do better than Philip Seymour Hoffman, but it’s Streep who takes the play and gives it a good shake. Looking creepily like Whistler’s grandmother; her eyes red; her white, angular face framed by a black bonnet that seems about 200 years out of date but is apparently true to Shanley?s experience of Catholic school in the sixties, Streep is fiercely effective, appropriately theatrical and wickedly funny. She seems to know it’s malarkey and acts accordingly.
I must confess I was expecting more of this movie, not least because – unless I misunderstood – it’s actually cut and dried as to who’s fighting the good fight, and who needs to be locked up. But that doesn’t mean it’s not enjoyable. Between them, Streep and Shanley stir up quite an Irish stew. It’s just that I kept hoping against hope that Father Ted would wander in and take a pew.