Movies Reviews John Patrick Shanley

Release Date: Dec. 12 (limited)
Director/Writer: John Patrick Shanley (based on his play)
Cinematographer: Roger Deakins
Starring: Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Viola Davis
Studio/Run Time: Miramax, 104 mins.

Rocky adaptation thrives on play’s ideas

The early scenes of Doubt glide past so smoothly that it’s easy to miss the seditious currents underneath. Set at an old Bronx Catholic school in the fall of 1964, the film at first feels like a window into a lost world of tradition, but specters of the Kennedy assassination and the school’s first black student warn of the social revolution ahead. A nun’s (Meryl Streep) suspicious glance at the school’s priest (Philip Seymour Hoffman) as he tends to students carries its own warning, with a much more ominous air.

For a film that readily awakens its cast’s more flamboyant instincts, Doubt thrives most on such sequences, shrouded in stricken ambiguity. The film unravels a duel of truth and morality between that priest and nun, she convinced he has developed an improper bond with an altar boy despite his emphatic denials. Doubt proceeds with nasty indictments and shadowy revelations as the case becomes increasingly overheated and bizarre, including an encounter with the altar boy’s mother (Viola Davis, a knockout) that opens another disturbing realm of possibility.

Writer-director John Patrick Shanley adapts his hugely celebrated play with more reverence for its searing ideas than the new medium before him. The action is deliberate but inert, with a numbness at odds with the emotional intensity inherent in a cast headed by Streep and Hoffman. And yet the riveting complexity of the would-be scandal remains as potent as ever. The film, like the play, baits the audience with big ideas and then weathers them down to a simple question—did he or didn’t he?—that is far larger than it seems. Whatever its failings as a film, Doubt‘s fierce ideological textures leave a pronounced unease that’s difficult to shake.

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