She’s spent most of the last decade raising laughs in comedies like Adaptation and The Devil Wears Prada but for John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt, Meryl Streep goes back to her actorly roots for a stony-faced portrayal of a 1960s Brooklyn nun whose darkest suspicions are raised when a priest in her school becomes friendly with a newly arrived African American boy.

From beneath her midnight-black habit, topped with a bonnet, Streep’s Sister Aloysius radiates waves of ice cold professionalism. Her face is waxy pale, her red-ringed eyes are framed with tiny, glittering spectacles and her thin lips are pre-set in a cluck of disapproval. Dubbed ‘the dragon lady’ by her terrified charges, Sr Aloysius is the headmistress of the local Roman Catholic school, a private kingdom she rules with an iron grip. She plays everything by the book, imposing strict rules on both her students and her teachers, watching everything, absorbing all sources of information.

When, one morning, she spots Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) make a kindly gesture to Donald (Joseph Foster), a newly arrived boy, she makes an instant interpretation. With typical froideur, she asks a younger nun, Sister James (Amy Adams) to keep an eye on the priest. The timid, unworldly younger woman returns with her observations and Sr Aloysius gradually assembles her evidence. She begins circling Father Flynn, bringing him to her office on trivial matters of school policy before delicately turning the conversation towards the boy. Flynn, no fool, is quick to understand what the senior nun is accusing him of, and the two lock horns. He proclaims his innocence, offering excuses and witnesses, but she has already made up her mind.

Streep revels in what is a juicy, wholly absorbing character whose development is as carefully plotted as a roadmap. She plays the cunning old nun with shades of Gothic horror, a tyrannical presence who clings to process and procedure because it is the only way she knows, regardless of the outcome. Opposite her, Hoffman is an initially bright presence, delivering compassionate sermons at mass and pressing for simple reforms in the school, but as the story progresses his shadow lengthens. Between these two, acting as the referee, Adams is a wide-eyed innocent, slow to comprehend the implications of the mission she has been assigned and unwilling to allow her heart to harden.

Director Shanley, a Bronx native educated by nuns, has adapted his own play for the film but there remains a nagging sense that he hasn’t adapted it enough. His actors give remarkably involving performances, helped considerably by the reams of crackling dialogue and crested emotional peaks. All the pieces are here, but they are artlessly assembled. Shanley overplays his camerawork, seeking out odd, unnatural angles and settling on obvious, clamorous symbols that go towards undermining the film’s delicate nuance: the howling wind scatters ominous leaves, the lightning flares behind Streep’s cowled head, the camera swoops around the steeples.

Because of Shanley’s uncertain, indelicate approach, Doubt remains a piece of theatre; a stage-bound, solemn parable of faith and moral conviction that explicitly asks the viewer to take sides but seals the judgement in a dusty file.

1 comment:

sophomorecritic said...

This is an excellent review. I agree that this is one of Streep's stronger performances.

Your point about it being too theatrical confuses me. How do you make something less theatrical? I think of something like Dr. Strangelove, 12 Angry Men, or Lifeboat as being theatrical because it has one or two main sets, but Doubt had both exterior and interior shots, and you mention yourself that a lot of effort went into the camera work.