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Courtesy of Miramax Films


Adaption of prize-winning play underscores the consequences of judging others and being wrong

By Drew Halfnight

Written and directed by John Patrick Shanley, starring Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams
(Goodspeed Productions)

As a smash-hit, Pulitzer Prize-winning play, John Patrick Shanley's drama about a Catholic priest accused of molesting an altar boy was titled Doubt: A Parable.

The studio might have retained this title for the film version. For if you rent Doubt expecting to see a gutsy Catholic drama like Priest or a moody whodunit like Mystic River, you will be disappointed. As a Hollywood suspense drama, Doubt falls short of the mark. The overall impression is of a play caught on film — it’s stagey and dialogue-heavy. But as a modern adaptation of the ancient form of the parable — a simple story that illustrates a moral question — the film achieves something new and different.

Set on the austere grounds of a Bronx Catholic school in 1964, Doubt pits Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Meryl Streep), a draconian headmistress who decries Frosty the Snowman as a song about false idols, against Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the school’s popular laid-back pastor. When the pastor takes a special shine to the school’s first and only black student, Donald Miller, Aloysius becomes convinced, on a hunch, that Flynn has abused the boy. Sparks fly as two of American cinema’s best living performers give these challenging roles their all.

Hoffman nails his part as the liberal, loving, indulgent Flynn. As we watch him smoke, eat raw beef and cultivate his long nails, we can’t help but wonder if his weak liberal constitution hasn’t given way to some perversion or other. Streep is his foil: tight, suspicious, righteous, authoritarian and unwavering in her conviction that Flynn is a pervert. Meanwhile, looking on is the impressionable Sister James (Amy Adams), the young teacher through whom we observe and attempt to judge the two archetypes.

At best, Doubt resonates as a parable about U.S. politics: the despair many Americans felt in the years following John F. Kennedy’s 1963 assassination; the fear that the Bush years exposed and exploited. “Doubt,” it asserts, “can be a bond as powerful and sustaining as certainty.” Another politician named Barack Obama couldn’t have said it better.

Author's photo
Drew Halfnight is a father, journalist and high school teacher in Toronto.
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