Monday, February 09, 2009

Quietly disquieting

Too often we associate the film genre drama with either hysterics or depression, or a combination of both extremes, communicated through various forms of screaming, sobbing, sighing, and long, impassioned soliloquys. Doubt reminds us that a drama need not be loud to be compelling or entertaining. In fact, as far as Hollywood dramas go, Doubt is very subdued, but like a well-tuned vehicle, its quiet engine belies the force that propels the car forward.

Perhaps it's already a given that any movie with Meryl Streep in it can't possibly suck, but in this case the queen of contemporary cinema is aided adeptly by Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, and Viola Davis, who all deliver performances worthy of their Oscar nominations. Streep plays Sister Aloysius, the steely, super-strict principal of a Catholic school, whose dislike of parish priest Father Flynn (Hoffman) leads her to suspect, then accuse him of questionable behavior involving a student. Caught in the middle is the young and naive Sister James (Adams), whose reports Sister Aloysius uses to strengthen her case against Father Flynn, in spite of the absence of hard proof. Director John Patrick Shanley, who wrote both the Pulitzer-winning play on which this film is based as well as its screenplay (also nominated for an Oscar), uses the theme of doubt to draw a parallel between the questions surrounding Father Flynn's guilt and the uncertainties clouding the protagonists' faith. That Shanley manages to get the audience fully immersed in that same doubt throughout and even after the movie is testament (pun not intended) to the power of his work.

As always, I am in awe of Meryl Streep, who is pitch-perfect as Sister Aloysius, giving the fearsome nun an accessible humanity through her formidable exterior. But maybe because we all expect such perfection from Ms. Streep, I found Philip Seymour Hoffman more riveting in this film. The best actors are the ones who make the viewer forget they're acting, and PSH belongs in that category. His Father Flynn is not only wholly believable (or should I say unbelievable?), but also seemingly effortless. In one scene, as he narrates a story during a homily he's delivering, he switches back and forth from a New York accent to an Irish brogue, and the fluidity, plus the sheer absence of grandstanding, are simply amazing. With such talent onboard, I imagine not many retakes were required in the filming of this movie. Aside from pros Streep and Hoffman, Amy Adams also impresses with her controlled and convincing portrayal of the wide-eyed Sister James (although it's hard not to be reminded of her role in Enchanted, a similarly good-natured and guileless girl), and Viola Davis makes the most out of her short screen time as the distressed mother of the student Father Flynn has allegedly taken advantage of.

Some may be put off with Doubt's slow pacing or its lack of action (in the form of
screaming or sobbing), but those who don't mind watching a film of introspection will appreciate how Doubt prompts one to search for answers not only within the movie, but within one's own doubting self.


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