“Doubt” follows the goings on at the St. Nicholas Catholic school in the Bronx of New York back in 1964. Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Meryl Streep) becomes concerned Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) may have developed an unhealthy relationship with the school’s sole black student, Donald Muller (Joseph Foster). This is brought to her attention when Sister James (Amy Adams) notices Donald acting strangely after he has been in the private company of Father Flynn, and Sister James also mentions she smelled alcohol on Donald’s breath. Sister Aloysius becomes convinced of Father Flynn’s guilt even though she has no real proof, but he denies any wrongdoing on his part. From there, it becomes a battle between Aloysius and Flynn which involves not just the accusations, but the state of the school and its students as well.
The fascinating thing about “Doubt” is how its story is simple in its construction, but the characters and the situations they get caught up in prove to be very complex. As the fight goes on between Aloysius and Flynn, you begin to wonder if the conflict doesn’t involve any specific student as it does the direction things are going as the threat of change often frightens people into defending what they believe to be their domain. Sister Aloysius represents the old guard and of the way things have always been. Father Flynn, on the other hand, represents the change many are quick to resist. When he suggests to Aloysius that they need to be nicer to the students, she takes it as an insult.
To watch Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman face off with each other is to watch a master class in acting. God only knows how hard these parts were for them to play. But the fact these two were among the best actors working back in 2008, you come into this movie knowing they are more than up to the challenge. It’s not just the delivery of Shanley’s dialogue they have to work at; it’s also what they show the audience through their eyes. The eyes are the window to the soul, and I’m sure that these two actors have thought their roles out through and through to where they never have to spell anything out to the audience, and it makes their journey all the more enthralling as we can never be absolutely certain of the thing they have and have not done.
Streep has given us an endless number of great performances in which she created characters so memorable which can never be easily erased from our conscious minds once we have seen her onscreen. Sister Aloysius Beauvier is another character she can rack up with her most memorable work, and the character’s introduction is brilliant as we see know from the back of her head who she is as she gets the young children to pay full attention to Father Flynn’s sermon. Without even seeing her face right away, Streep quickly makes an impact as a strong and frightening authority figure to the students and the nuns under her tutelage. Her performance will quickly bring back memories of the awful teachers you were forced to learn under to where you realize the psychological scars are still very raw. She’s the kind of teacher where everything she says is right, and the students are wrong. I hated teachers like that! Hated them!
Hoffman, as always, is brilliant here and matches Streep from one scene to the next. We keep waiting to see if there will be a slip where all will be revealed, but Hoffman keeps his cards close to his chest. Flynn’s explanations for the private meeting between him and Donald are not implausible, but Aloysius remains unconvinced. Hoffman is great at showing how the simple feeling of doubt can easily destroy a person to where guilt and innocence doesn’t matter. Flynn’s fight to prove his innocence threatens to bring out the worst in him, and he continues to sink deeper into a hole he is desperately trying to climb out of.
Along for this morally complex ride is Amy Adams who plays Sister James, and her character is essentially stuck in the middle between these Aloysius and Flynn. Watching Adams here made me wonder if there was another actress who could the same empathy and kindness which she gives off here, and no one quickly comes to mind. Adams shows the love Sister James has for her job as a history teacher ever so perfectly, and she also shows the desperation her character exudes in her search of absolutely certainty. Sister James is the first to suspect Father Flynn is up to no good when she sees him put an undershirt worn by Donald in his locker, but she knows this proves nothing. At times, Sister James seems rather naïve when it comes to how people act around each other, but she proves to be the most morally grounded of the three main characters as she never loses her sense of right and wrong.
There is also a fantastic performance from Viola Davis who plays Mrs. Miller, Donald’s mother. She shares a tense scene with Streep as they discuss their individual suspicions which proves to be one of “Doubt’s” most unforgettable moments. Mrs. Miller likes how Father Flynn has been so nice to her son because she admits her husband beats him severely when he misbehaves. When Sister Aloysius confides her suspicions to Mrs. Miller, it doesn’t change the level of worry for her son’s welfare as it is already extremely high. Instead, she fears more about what Donald’s father will do to him if the allegations against Father Flynn prove to be true. With only ten to twenty minutes of screen time, Viola does a brilliant job of making you feel her character’s heartbreaking dilemma, and of how she has been with left little choice over how to resolve this potentially unhealthy situation she is just now being made aware of. It’s one thing for an actor to show what their character is going through, but it is quite another for them to make you feel what they are experiencing.
With “Doubt,” Shanley brilliantly shows how the state of doubt affects everyone equally. No character comes out of this story the same, and we are left with a deep uncertainty which cannot be easily dismissed while walking out of the theater. Everyone is harmed deeply here, and it binds them as strongly as it tears them apart. You have to feel for those caught in its ugly wake because they end up having to live with something they did not necessarily bring on themselves. It’s a brilliant play which has been made into a great movie filled with outstanding performances, and of this I have no doubt.