Thursday, July 21, 2011


Movie Review : Doubt
Director : John Patrick Shanley
Genre : Drama
Released : December 2008
Starring : Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Viola Davis
My Rating : 9 out of 10

I like to watch movies with as little information about them as possible. Due to the many nominations it received at Oscars and Golden Globe in 2009, I had filed "Doubt" in the long list I have for "must see it later, so don't read any more about it" :-) It shouldn't have taken so long for it to bubble up to the top of the queue. I should have watched it then, not later.

While watching, it was clear to me that this must have been based on a play. Indeed it is. Director Shanley has adapted from his own Pulitzer Prize winning play, and it's equally clear why the play won so many accolades.

The setup is deceptively simple. Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep) is the Principal of a Catholic School in Bronx during 1964. An eighth grade teacher, Sister James (Amy Adams) brings to her attention that Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) had called the only black student, alone to the rectory. Sister Aloysius suspects Father Flynn to be engaging in an improper relationship and sets out to oust him.

On the surface, the question is of course, is Father Flynn guilty ? With what we know about that period now, we are inclined to answer yes. But is it true ? This is not a detective movie, and in real life arriving at truth without any ambiguity is rare. So if you don't like loose ends, chances are, you will be unsatisfied when the movie ends. The lingering doubts harass the characters in the story, as well as the viewers. That's how the director intends it to be, and I found it very clever.

Both Sister Aloysius and Father Flynn claim to have nothing but good intentions, and may be that's true. But their approaches and personalities are polar opposite. Sister Aloysius is as strict as you would expect a principal to be in a Catholic school circa 1964. She doesn't even approve of ballpoint pens. I remember my teachers saying that ! Students are terrified by her. Father Flynn on the other hand is very accommodating and gentle. He has a good sense of humor, and kids love him. Is this difference in personalities the real reason of the conflict ?

On a deeper level, it's also a conflict between moral righteousness versus compassion. Father Flynn believes in forgiveness, whereas Sister Aloysius believes in justice. These two different faces of every religion are often incompatible.

And on an even deeper level, this is about the very nature of truth. In life, especially about behavior of real people, truth can be very illusive. How can you be certain - without any doubt ?

This ability to appeal us viewers on many different levels is why I think this is a great movie. It wouldn't have been so nuanced without the phenomenal acting by both Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman. For Meryl, this earned her yet another nomination - one of her unbelievable total of 16 till date. And as for Philip Seymour Hoffman, I think he did better than Meryl ! His internal battles are clearly visible on his face. I cannot think of a better choice to play this complex role. Amy Adams provides good support, but her role is much simpler and we have seen this type of portrayal many times before. Viola Davis gets a fraction of the screen time compared to other actors, and yet, she manages to make as big an impact as others.

Director Shanley chooses to get noticed by not trying hard to get noticed. The story matter is handled with utmost respect and sensitivity. It's an uncomfortable topic for the viewers as well as for the characters. Shanley chooses to provoke thoughts in your mind, rather than jolting you out of your seat. As the writer, he paints the characters as mostly good, but not perfect. It's hard to strongly dislike any character here, each is trying hard to do what is right according to them. But it doesn't stop you from wishing that they had made slightly better choices. It's subtle and superb writing.

I definitely have a bias for character based movies, still I think this movie will impress a very large percentage of viewers. This is one the "must see" movies.

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