- The Washington Times - Friday, December 12, 2008

“Doubt” begins with a sermon. “What do you do when you’re not sure?” Father Brendan Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) asks by way of introducing his topic. “Doubt can be as powerful and sustaining a bond as certainty.”

“Doubt” doesn’t wear its themes lightly. John Patrick Shanley, who directed and wrote the film based on his Pulitizer Prize-winning play, seems unable to tackle an issue in this film without pointing out that he’s tackling it. It’s a shame because one of the subjects he takes on - how the Catholic hierarchy dealt for decades with the pedophile priests in its midst - is ripe for the kind of unsparing treatment Mr. Shanley likely meant to give it but didn’t succeed.

The setting is a Bronx parochial school in 1964 that’s ruled with an iron fist by its principal, Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep). She’s the kind of throwback who hates to see a ballpoint pen in place of a fountain pen and calls Sister James’ cough drops, when she finds them, “candy by another name.” You can easily imagine what she would think of the soon-to-be-concluded Vatican II.

Sister James (Amy Adams) is more sympathetic to Father Brendan’s attempts to loosen things up. When she sees him slipping a boy’s undershirt into a locker, though, she can’t help but confide in Sister Aloysius.

Earlier that day, the priest requested a private meeting with that student, Donald Muller (Joseph Foster). The elder man had taken the boy, the school’s first black pupil, under his wing. When the boy returns to class upset and with alcohol on his breath, Sister James wonders if protection has turned to predation.

Confronted by the two women, Father Brendan denies any wrongdoing and offers an innocent explanation. Sister James is satisfied; Sister Aloysius, already suspicious of the relaxed priest, is not. She calls in the student’s mother (Viola Davis) but finds a surprisingly unsympathetic ear.

The boy graduates in just a few months, and she wants him to be able to stay at the school, with the priest’s protection, so he can get into a good high school and then college. Sister Aloysius thus wages her war alone, determined to get Father Brendan out, though she hasn’t any real proof he has done anything wrong.

The stage is set for an intense psychological drama, but perhaps that’s the problem - “Doubt” hasn’t translated well from stage to screen. With the theater’s immediacy, it’s easier in some ways to establish character. On-screen, it’s not done well at all, making it harder to feel this game has such high stakes.

It doesn’t help that characters sometimes utter preposterous lines, as when Sister Aloysius responds to Father Brendan’s declaration “You have no proof” with “I have my certainty.”

The talent here is top-notch, but even the universally adored Miss Streep can’t save the film from lines like that.

Stars: 2 1/2

TITLE: “Doubt”

RATING: PG-13 (Thematic material)

CREDITS: Written and directed by John Patrick Shanley based on his stage play.

RUNNING TIME: 104 minutes

WEB SITE: doubt-themovie.com


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