Veil of Suspicion
Starring: Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Meryl Streep, Amy Adams
By Colleen Dillon
It seems that in life, the vast majority of all regret arises from decisions made without absolute certainty. Actions taken – or not taken – because we didn’t have all the evidence, or couldn’t properly interpret the evidence we did have, can plague us for lifetimes.
Doubt, a film based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning play of the same name, revolves around uncertainties, the ripple effects of suspicion, and self-defense in the face of grave accusations. Set in a Bronx Catholic church, a year after John F. Kennedy was shot, the dialogue-driven film introduces multi-dimensional characters: personable and progressive Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman); naively optimistic Sister James (Amy Adams); and rigid, but quietly kind Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep).
The plot of Doubt is quite simple, albeit weighty. Talk between Sisters Aloysius and James evolves into suspicion of Father Flynn molesting a student at the parish school, Donald Muller (Joseph Foster). Donald is the first African-American student at the school and Father Flynn’s efforts to make him feel comfortable ride the line between kindness and impropriety. The subject matter is attention-grabbing, but the movie is propelled by dialogue and interactions. The camera’s tense angles place the audience in the judgmental position of an omniscient God or at the level of a confused and embarrassed child, asked to identify indecency. Vocal pitch, terse gestures, and pauses (or lack thereof) in speech make the film more taut with emotion than deliberate action ever could. The power struggles played out in exchanges and circumlocution obvious in the discussion of delicate subjects make this the best screenplay of the year.
In the vastly contrasted worlds of priests and nuns, interactions between the two occur in restricted, tradition-laden pleasantries. Accusations and interrogations are foreign matters. In scenes wrought with bitterness and indignation, Sister Aloysius informs Father Flynn of her suspicions. The sweet sound of a children’s choir juxtaposes the pounding, ominous notes of an organ, while Father Flynn’s character continues to be explored through sermons, hugs, and jokes told over dinner. Sister James comes to doubt Flynn’s guilt, but Sister Aloysius is resolute. The decision between Father Flynn’s condemnation or absolution seems to lie with the audience. We are asked to choose who is wrong, who has made the mistake, who has the right intentions, who has abused their position of power.
In a sense, Doubt reminds me of last year’s There Will Be Blood. Although I believe Doubt to be a far better film, both movies employ the same tones and dramatic structure. Close-ups of faces reveal entire personalities, bystander-like shots catch characters reacting in naturalistic situations, and words are turned threatening by an almost imperceptible change in tone. In both films, the audience is led by the camera to view behaviors, almost as extras on a real-life set, and left to determine their relevance and meaning.
Perhaps this way of presenting the story through observations is why the film becomes reality through the talent of Philip Seymour Hoffman and Meryl Streep. Streep becomes the East Coast aunt, the strict elementary school teacher, and, more literally, the 1960s nun, bound in tradition, self-discipline, and propriety. Hoffman seems as if he’s lived his entire life as a Catholic priest, gregarious and considerate, with a streak of good-natured vice. Hoffman and Streep become legitimate personalities – a miracle of dual authenticity that occurs rarely in film.
I feel that in writing this review, I cannot do the movie justice. There is more substance to this film than my writing can convey. Unclear facial expressions, for example, which can be interpreted as either signs of Father Flynn’s guilt or normal, non-symbolic gazes, saturate the story as do numerous other tics and subtleties, very few of which I could really pick out or describe here. I would like to simply say this film is the best I have seen, perhaps, in years, but that statement becomes meaningless without the passion and awe that I have failed to express. I look back on this film with reverence. It leaves viewers with the solemnity and moral considerations of a church service, concluded with organ music as they exit their seats. It is uncommon for a film to evoke such distinct emotion. For this reason, Doubt is as universal, imposing, and unforgettable as the feeling itself.