Friday, January 30, 2009

Doubt: A Film

[I don't intend on spoiling anything, but I do discuss certain aspects of the plot that may be considered spoilers, hard as it be to avoid them whenever you discuss this piece. So if you're on the spoiler police squad that usually cries foul at those who do, go see the film first just to be on the safe side :)]

I rank seeing the original Broadway cast of Doubt high on my all-time list of theatre going experiences. Part of the appreciation stemmed from my Catholic upbringing and nine years spent in a parochial school, but mostly I was impressed with Shanley's text. The principal of a 1964 Bronx Catholic school suspects one of the priests of having an inappropriate relationship with the school's only black student. And go... the play in its taut ninety minutes isn't about the validity of whether or not the priest has done it, but about the greater ramifications of our certainty and judgments. You have nun vs. priest, encompassing a greater conflict of conservative vs. progressive, Vatican I vs. Vatican II, man vs. woman (especially in the patriarchal hierarchies of the Roman Catholic Church).

As I watched the terrific play unfold onstage, I couldn't help but think that it would open well for film and to my delight it has. There are aspects that will remain for my theatrical experience, the play's dialogue is so expertly written (crafted? manipulated? you decide) to give the audience only circumstantial evidence for either argument. However, one must base their decision on the facts and not what is circumstantial which has led many theatre patrons to have fantastic discussions following three tier: they supported the nun, they supported the priest or they hadn't a clue. The playwright's intention was the latter, but far be it from anyone to convince anyone otherwise.

Shanley's screenplay and direction have taken the play out of the church and principal's office, giving us scenes in the courtyard, classrooms, convent, rectory and street, opening it up without tampering too much with what was presented onstage. Meryl Streep gives a stern, magnificently restrained performance as Sr. Aloysius, the principal who either has it in for this priest, or has the interests of her students in mind. Philip Seymour Hoffman is credible as Fr. Flynn, the charismatic priest who has...well, what has he done? I'm afraid I don't know, nor do I think I ever will know. Amy Adams is spectacular as Sister James, the 8th grade teacher who finds herself caught in the middle of the battle. Viola Davis, on screen for 11 minutes as Donald Miller's (why the change from Muller to Miller... anyone?) mother, is magnificent. Her scene is both devastating and unsettling, particularly in the unexpected turn their conversation takes. I can vividly recall the look on Cherry Jones' face at the Walter Kerr, which was not unlike that on Meryl's face.

The love of the play didn't hinder me seeing this film, in spite of my underwhelming reaction to the casting of the two lead roles. In an ideal world, all our original casts would get to put their roles on screen. Cherry Jones was no exception for me. I had heard talk of her for years, but hadn't really seen much of her work save for Cradle Will Rock and a memorable cameo in Ocean's Twelve (the only thing I can recall from that otherwise DOA sequel). However, I was taking in her Tony winning role, especially beating the voracious Martha of Kathleen Turner. Well, to put it simply, I will drop anything and everything to see her onstage (only we've lost her to the current season of 24 where she plays the latest US president caught up in the world of Jack Bauer). Her performance as Aloysius ranks near the top of the list of live theatre experiences I've had, ably matched by the youthfully virile Brian F. O'Byrne sporting a Bronx accent and nary a trace of his Irish in a verbal volley for the ages, putting me at the edge of my seat. Her command of the stage and the audience was just thrilling, with her exceeding the hype surrounding her, with a performance reminiscent of the more stern nuns I've known and adored.

Anyway, the film is for the most part, quite excellent. Of all things I'm kind of nonplussed at the establishing shots of the film that really weren't necessary. A nice touch too with Shanley giving Streep an entrance, with a great reveal after scolding several students for misbehavior at Mass. She gives one of the best turns I've ever seen her give (this from someone who finds her highly overrated, no offense meant) and certainly worthy of the accolades that have come her way. She finds her way through the script without being a total harridan which is important, especially in the final confrontation sequence. Hoffman, regardless of how the award guilds look at it, is giving a lead performance and is outstanding.

The final confrontation scene was electric onstage and I miss the higher stakes seen onstage, though that is a personal quibble and those of you seeing the film without having seen the show staged, this will mean nothing to you. Go, enjoy the film and discuss, it's strength is in the text and in the performances (it's fun too if you've seen the play to see where Shanley has cut and added scenes and dialogue). The writer and actors often discussed how the the play itself was the first act and the second act was the audience leaving the theatre arguing and debating over what they had seen. I would love to know what you thought about it as well.

It should be interesting to see how the film fares on Oscar night. While it was denied a Best Picture nod, the four main actors are in contention. The Best Supporting Actress category minus favorite Kate Winslet has suddenly become the one category that is completely up in the air and bears watching. Hoffman doesn't stand much of a chance against the juggernaut of the late Heath Ledger and his iconic performance in The Dark Knight. And it appears that Best Actress is between Meryl and Kate. I'll be en route to or in the airport at that point... so lord knows if I'll see any of it.

Oh, and before I forget. One touch I loved? The casting of Helen Stenborg as Sister Teresa. Stenborg, the widow of the late Barnard Hughes, is the mother of Doug Hughes, the Tony-winning director of the original production.


Esther said...

Did it make a difference being able to see the children on screen, versus on stage, when I guess you never saw them?

Kevin Daly said...

For me it didn't make much difference. It was necessary for a film to show the children, but I felt that their presence didn't sway the story one way or the other. Shanley took offstage moments that are mentioned in the play and depicted them onscreen. The evidence is still circumstantial in either medium.