*. It’s not always a good thing when a movie takes you somewhere you’re not expecting. A good example is Doubt, which I thought was building up to the ironic reveal that young Jimmy Hurley — the stand-in for writer-director John Patrick Shanley — was the one actually being abused by Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman). But, and here’s an anti-spoiler alert, that’s not what happens. Which is a pity, because I think that would have made for a much more interesting twist than the ending we do get, which is unexpectedly weak.
*. Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep) has her doubts. Maybe not so much about Father Flynn, but about the Church and the winds of change that are roaring through it, knocking down branches and elderly nuns. As a theme, this is less than I was expecting, and I wasn’t the only one to be disappointed. Peter Bradshaw found Streep’s final speech “stagey” (not the word I’d use) and “beyond absurdity.” He also thought the movie as a whole “a terminally muddled piece of star-studded Oscar-bait.”
*. At least the Oscar-bait part was true enough. Doubt received five nominations total, four of them in acting categories. Didn’t win any though.
*. Critics were divided into those who saw it merely as Oscar-bait and those who, well, took that bait. I put myself more in the former category. The acting was nothing special. Streep’s Bronx Irish accent comes and goes. Hoffman doesn’t suggest any hidden depths. Amy Adams is too innocent.
*. Viola Davis is good, but mainly because she’s given the one really good scene (it’s her only scene) to work with. It opens a window, however briefly, on a moment of profound moral ambiguity. She gives us a far more authentic character than Streep’s caricature, but at the end of the day she’s only a bit player in the drama.
*. Produced by Miramax and Scott Rudin Productions. Hm. Hollywood is an ironic place.
*. Based on Shanley’s play of the same name (or near enough, Doubt: A Parable), so of course it’s talky. And shot by Roger Deakins so it looks swell. But it just doesn’t engage as much as it should. Except for Davis’s Mrs. Miller there are no depths here to be plumbed. I’ve said how Sister Aloysius is a caricature and I would have liked more on the question of whether she’s a shepherd or a cat hunting a mouse. Father Flynn is shuffled off stage, which seems a repetition of historical errors made by the Church. Shanley doesn’t want us to judge him, so makes judgment impossible. Indeed, we can’t even judge Streep’s suspicious mind. The children are voiceless.
*. You can’t see this as a movie that has anything to say about the Catholic Church and child sexual abuse. Instead it’s a movie that, I think, is about questioning authority. Except it doesn’t seem to want to go there either. I’m not sure where it does want to go. There are glimmers of a better movie here but they remain roads not taken. You can only play ambiguity, or doubt, for so long before you have to offer something more. I honestly left this movie having no idea about how Shanley felt about any of this, aside from his nostalgic affection for Sister James. That doesn’t seem like a strong hook to hang such a story from.