From the Archive: Doubt

This review originally appeared at my former online home. To the best of my determination, this was the last full-length piece on a new film that only appeared there without also transferring over to this little corner of the digital world. For about a year, my writing appeared in the both spaces, before I ceded that other account to just occasional mental flotsam and jetsam.

I suspect that appreciation for the new film Doubt probably hinges on where you land in evaluating Meryl Streep’s performance as an imperious nun confronting possible impropriety on the part of a younger priest she dislikes. Streep is ferocious, in every respect, in the role. She snarls her lines, strides through scenes as if always ready to bark an order or cuff a disobedient kid (or colleague), scrunches her face up to indicate displeasure, and generally tackles every scene with the goal of just plain acting the hell out of it. Initially it’s jarring, even off-putting. Eventually, for me, it became clear that it was a particularly insightful way to approach the material. There are big, heavy themes afoot in Doubt. Streep is making it opera, and every one of her moments onscreen in its own aria di bravura.

In a way, it reminded me of Kevin Spacey’s work in Sam Mendes’ American Beauty. Like Spacey, Streep sometimes seems to be the only one involved with the production who properly understands it, knows how to twist the words to give it the right dark, tricky bend. That certainly can’t actually be the case here. It’s the original author of the play, John Patrick Shanley, who adapted it for the screen and serves as director. He may be overly reliant on tired techniques like dramatically canted camera angles, but he undoubtedly has a grasp on his own work. He clearly has respect for it. The film always feels like a piece of writing, the writer’s hand ever apparent. It’s a construction with nary a beat of intrusive naturalism. This can be devastating to a film, a form that often benefits from happy accidents that reflect the messiness of life. Sometimes, though, there’s a true pleasure in well-written words brought to the screen with precision.

Especially when they become a platform for high-wire theatrics. Streep’s performance is so all-consuming that the other work is the film is improved when refracted against it. Amy Adams’ work as a younger, more upbeat nun initially seems too broadly drawn, as if she hadn’t quite shaken of the cartoonish naïveté and hopefulness of last year’s Enchanted. Eventually, it proves to be the ideal counterbalance to Streep, its wide-eyed sweetness the polar opposite of Streep’s malevolent drive. This is even true for the comparatively grounded work by Philip Seymour Hoffman as the priest who becomes an adversary and Viola Davis as a mother whose tremulous dignity is strained by bouts of exasperation and worry in the face of problems at the Catholic school. Since these characters are effectively in conflict with Streep’s superior sister, the variation in acting styles heighten the tension of the scenes. Hoffman has the capability to approach the material as boldly as Streep. By downplaying instead, it puts his character even more clearly outside of the regimented world favored by Streep’s.

At almost any given point while watching Doubt, I couldn’t have decisively asserted whether or not I even thought the movie was good. I was continuously aware of the mechanics of it: the choices in acting, directing and writing. I was never immersed, but I was always entertained. That’s something of a feat for a movie that traffics in so many heavy topics: religion, sexism, racism, pedophilia, generational conflicts, the list goes on and on. The boy at the center of the story’s driving scandal alone bears so many burdens, symbolic and otherwise, that you half expect his mother to announce he’s inundated by locusts every time he boards the school bus and also sees dead people who don’t know they’re dead. It’s reasons such as this that Streep’s performance, which careens right up to the edge of overdone with ever actual crossing the line, sets the tone perfectly. The movie’s not absurd, but it could be. Somehow, the glancing acknowledgment of that in Streep’s acting keeps it all in check, adding genuine bite to the concerns unfolding onscreen.

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