Monday, February 23, 2009
I tend to have problems with plays adapted for the film. Obviously this is not a blanket statement, since so many writers have moved a story from the stage to the screen, but often they leave me cold. Why, though? Most of these adaptations sport incredible casts, and many members of those casts perfected their performances by actually appearing in the original play. The writer often adapts his own play, and the sets flesh out the limitations of the stage into something that can add weight to the acting. So why, then, do I have such a hard time with adapted plays?
Doubt, at the onset, at least, seems like it will defy my expectations. It opens with Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) delivering a subject on the title of the film, remarking how doubt "can be a bond as strong as certainty." Moving amongst the children in the back of the cathedral is Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep), hissing at the restless kids to straighten up, and already you can sense she doesn't care for the new priest.
Streep moves through the film with a look of perpetually concealed rage. She monitors the class of the cheery, sweet Sister James (Amy Adams), whose students act up a bit thanks to her leniency; after class, Aloysius offers tips on how to get control of the class. "You're too innocent" she tells Sister James later, and one need only sit back and bask in the irony of such an indictment of a nun. One day Sister James tells her superior that Father Flynn called young Donald Miller into the rectory, and when the boy left he acted...strange. The elder sister's eyes flash with fire and narrow. "So," she sighs with malice, "it's happened."
While Sister Aloysius plots to take Flynn down, Sister James must cope with the thought of a man she admires being a molester. She effectively personifies the doubt of the story, as she finds herself torn between the two factions: when (circumstantial) evidence comes to light, she sides with Aloysius. Yet she also notices Flynn's kindness and Aloysius' obvious hatred of the reform Flynn brings with him, and finally levels her own accusation towards the sister: "You just don't like him." Playwright John Patrick Shanley essentially structures Doubt around Sister James, so the responsibility of subtle rests on Adams' shoulders, and she pulls it off magnificently.
Think of her role in these terms, the performances of Hoffman and Streep take on an entirely new context. Sister James represents the average Catholic caught in the middle of two opposing viewpoints of Vatican II: on one side the welcoming new face of Father Flynn, which carries with it the sudden suggestion of molestation that would later tarnish the Church's image, and the old school fire-and-brimstone clergy of Sister Aloysius. When the two figures finally confront each other, the maelstrom of emotions that might normally seem like the usual stage-to-screen overacting works, and it's one of the most memorable scenes of the year.
Complementing these three incredible performances is a brief but scene-stealing appearance from Viola Davis as Donald Miller's mother. She has to go toe-to-toe with Meryl Streep, and the consensus for once is right: she more than holds her own. Her impassioned speech adds layers to the story and only pulls the truth farther from our grasp. Davis adds a human face to three otherwise symbolic figures, which makes her unessential yet welcome.
True to form, Doubt never lets us know what really happened. Oh, there's a clear winner, but we learn something about the method that the character took to best the other, and it raises more questions. Did the loser acquiesce out of guilt, or fear of accusation? Both Flynn and Aloysius know the power of doubt and how it could rip the parish apart, and with Sister James, the parish stand-in, in the middle of it, we'll never learn the full truth.