Saturday, April 11, 2009

Doubt: Grade B

Doubt (2008)
Philip Seymour Hoffman, Meryl Streep, Amy Adams, Viola Davis; Writer-Director John Patrick Shanley.

The harsh principal of a Catholic school in 1960’s New York (Streep) believes for no reason that the head priest (Hoffman) is abusing one of the boys in her class. Then one of the teachers (Adams) reports that the boy had alcohol on his breath after a conference with the priest, though that action was off-screen. In fact the whole movie is talking heads discussing other places, other actions, other conversations. No action is seen first-hand, making it a slow-moving movie, but not quite boring. The principal confronts the boy’s mother (Davis) who gives a knockout, memorable performance in her short scene. Acting by everyone is at a very high level, and that makes the movie worth watching.

The priest asks the principal if she has any evidence against him. She doesn’t, she admits, but she has certainty. The priest asks her if she has doubt, and she says no. So the theme of certainty without evidence becomes a parable for religious faith versus doubt. For those who are slow to pick up that connection, the priest gives several sermons to make it obvious. And that’s about it. Nothing happens, nothing is resolved. Dramatic tension is parasitic on recent cultural hysteria about priestly sexual abuse of children. The story does not develop its own tension. Costumes and sets are excellent, especially the dowdy parish offices and classrooms. The stench of church authority, delusional ritual, and small-minded thinking succeeded in getting up my nose. Exceptionally fine performances redeem a weak story.

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