It's 1964, St. Nicholas in the Bronx. A vibrant, charismatic priest, Father Flynn, is trying to upend the school's strict customs, which have long been fiercely guarded by Sister Aloysius Beauvier, the iron-gloved Principal who believes in the power of fear and discipline. The winds of political change are sweeping through the country, and, indeed, the school has just accepted its first black student, Donald Miller. But when Sister James, a hopeful innocent, shares with Sister Aloysius her suspicion that Father Flynn is paying too much personal attention to Donald, Sister Aloysius is galvanized to begin a crusade to both unearth the truth and expunge Flynn from the school. Now, without a shred of proof or evidence except her moral certainty, Sister Aloysius locks into a battle of wills with Father Flynn, a battle that threatens to tear apart the Church and school with devastating consequences.
Storyline: Our Reviewer's Take
Few films today challenge us to examine issues from different angles, to dissect the meaning of delicate gestures and ambiguous actions, and debate their significance. Even fewer refuse to take a side or betray a bias, instead forcing viewers to digest the facts, interpret the intangibles, and form their own opinion. 'Doubt' is one such film. Without pretense or fanfare, it presents its story, and as its multiple layers unfold and overlap, we see how a single incident – real or imagined – can forever alter one's course and perspective. 'Doubt' wields its power with quiet grace, allowing the drama to build naturally and its questions and themes to percolate over time. It's a movie that sticks with you. It's a movie that makes you think.
'Doubt' earned five major Academy Award nominations – four for acting, one for adapted screenplay – and is, without a doubt (bad pun intended), one of the best films of 2008. (That it missed nabbing an Oscar nod for Best Picture is nothing short of criminal.) Writer-director John Patrick Shanley, who adapted his Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning play, masterfully puts forth the idea that doubt infuses our lives and is a necessity in our society – driving us, forcing change, expanding our minds and souls, for better or worse. Doubt can bind us together and it can tear us apart, sometimes simultaneously. And in the fall of 1964 at the Saint Nicholas School in the Bronx, it does just that.
Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep), the school principal, presides over her domain with an iron hand, harshly admonishing those who fall out of step, and viewing any sort of change or progression with a suspicious eye. "Every easy choice today will have its consequences tomorrow," she says. No one escapes her gaze or is above reproach, least of all the parish priest, Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Flynn embodies the change Sister Aloysius fears, and his liberal attitudes, less formal demeanor, and easygoing relationship with her students disturb her. When she spies an eighth grader recoiling from his seemingly innocuous touch, the notion of impropriety enters her head. She asks her fellow nuns to "be alert" and inform her if they have any worries about Father Flynn, and it's not long before the young, impressionable Sister James (Amy Adams) speaks up. The information she imparts concerns Father Flynn's special relationship with the school's only African-American student, who is also an altar boy. Immediately suspecting the worst, Sister Aloysius pounces on Sister James' story and embarks on a feverish mission to uncover the priest's dirty secret, protect the boy's welfare, and expunge the insidious evil from her parish.
The howling wind that blows throughout the film heralds a shift in ideology and morals both within the church and society at large – a shift few in the isolated world of Saint Nicholas parish are prepared to embrace. But along with fallen leaves, the wind also scatters seeds of doubt, and those seeds reach far and wide, gripping everyone in different ways. Sister James feels it, the boy's mother (Viola Davis) feels it, even the resolute Sister Aloysius is not immune to doubt. Yet Father Flynn's guilt or innocence is only one element of a much larger canvas of doubt encompassing faith, sexuality, action or inaction, right or wrong, the future, progress, and personal motivations. At what cost, the film asks, do we move forward? What do we risk and what do we gain by seeking the truth? And is it sometimes better to simply look the other way?
'Doubt' is not a flashy film, but neither is it a stodgy stage adaptation. Shanley throws in some off-kilter Dutch angles for effect, but his direction remains largely unobtrusive, and that works in the film's favor. Too much visible technique would detract from the superb script and performances, and divert viewers' attention away from the pressing issues at hand. Still, Shanley beautifully recreates the strict parochial school atmosphere, and paints a striking contrast between the old-boy priest network and the silent sisterhood of the nuns. He also depicts the subtle power struggle raging between Father Flynn and Sister Aloysius, and how each employs faint but purposeful tactics to achieve the upper hand. Sister Aloysius respects the church's chain of command, but isn't afraid to circumvent it to get at the truth.
And truth is what the performances in this film are all about. 'Doubt' is an actor's movie, and the four leading players excel at every turn. Yes, it's difficult to divorce their personas from their parts (except in the case of the revelatory Viola Davis), but such familiarity doesn't detract from their portrayals or dull the story's impact. It's no secret Hoffman is one of America's finest actors, and he's brilliant here. In a finely measured performance, he always keeps us guessing – one minute, we're convinced he's a monster; the next, we see him as a hunted animal – but all the variances are in his eyes. Trying to figure out what goes on in his head is one of the great joys of 'Doubt,' and Hoffman is deliciously stingy with the clues. As the innocent Sister James, Adams is a ray of light – so pure, so tender. At times, she still reminds us of Princess Giselle in 'Enchanted,' but this is a much more demanding role, and she acutely captures the trusting heart, optimistic spirit, and blind idealism of a young nun. And then there's Viola Davis. Man, what an actress! As the troubled boy's protective mother who only wants what's best for her son – no matter what it may be – she creates a lasting impression, and it's a travesty she wasn't rewarded with a Best Supporting Actress Oscar. Davis may be on screen for only a few minutes, but her quiet passion and dignity are unforgettable.
Although 'Doubt' is truly an ensemble piece, the stunning work of Meryl Streep still stands just a hair above the rest. Sister Aloysius is a rich, meaty role and Streep brings to it an array of surprising facets that somehow congeal into a complex whole. At once frightening, vindictive, judgmental, compassionate, funny (yes, laugh-out-loud funny!), and vulnerable, Streep creates a character that's so much more than the sum of its parts. It would be easy to pigeonhole Sister Aloysius as a heartless villain, but Streep – just like she did with Miranda Preistly in the vastly different 'The Devil Wears Prada' – gives her such humanity we can't help but admire and feel for her, too. It's another tour de force performance from this immensely gifted actress.
'Doubt' is a movie to watch more than once; the kind of film that will yield new discoveries and fresh perspectives upon each viewing. It should be discussed, debated, experienced, and enjoyed. See it.
'Doubt' takes place during the fall and winter, so the lack of foliage, harsh cityscape, and stark church interiors don't provide much color. But this 1080p/MPEG-4 AVC transfer is in no way dull. Shanley finds innovative ways to infuse his frames with splashes of muted hues that add warmth and depth to an otherwise austere film. There's a lot of black in this movie – the nuns are draped in it from head to toe – and the inky saturation is superb. Contrast is good, too, with whites often playing against the dark fabric of the sisters' habits to marvelous effect. The range of fleshtones all look natural, and fine details show up well.
This is not an eye-popping transfer, nor should it be, but clarity is quite strong, so it's easy to form intimate relationships with all the characters and feel a part of their environs. Grain is evident, but lends many harsh scenes vital warmth and preserves the film-like feel. Close-ups aren't razor sharp, but they're crisp enough to provide all the essential facial details, while some lovely textures, such as burlap, are well rendered. The print, of course, is spotless, and no evidence of edge enhancement or digital processing could be detected. All in all, this transfer does 'Doubt' proud and really honors Shanley's vision.
I wasn't expecting an adapted stage play to provide much in the way of high-tech sound, but the 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track impresses with both its subtlety and force. Dialogue is the movie's main responsibility, and every incisive word comes through loud and clear. The vocal range runs the gamut from whispers and mumbles to shrill shouting, yet there's no distortion on the high end and no drop outs on the low. Both Streep, with her terrific New York accent, and Hoffman possess marvelous speaking voices, and this track really highlights the individual timbres of their respective instruments, while also complementing Davis' dulcet and Adams' puerile tones. In addition, the church service sequences accurately reflect the basilica's booming acoustics and delicate echoes, making us feel as if we're sitting right there in the pews.
Wind plays a major role in the film, too, and it's often an imposing sonic presence, sweeping across all five channels. Rain is also distinct, and several thunderclaps allow the subwoofer a chance to pump out some palpable bass. Howard Shore's unobtrusive music score enjoys fine fidelity, adding atmosphere and a faint sense of foreboding without aggrandizing the drama or manipulating our interpretation of key scenes. Once again, for a film with little audio potential, this track makes the most of what it's given.
'Doubt' may not be packed with extras, but what's included on the disc is, for the most part, high quality stuff. A probing film demands intelligent supplements, and Miramax provides a meaty selection that really enhances our appreciation of the film and the care that went into its production.
- Audio Commentary - Writer-director John Patrick Shanley sits down for an informative and involving commentary that gives us a greater sense of the time, ideals, and religious customs infusing 'Doubt.' Shanley shot much of the film in and around his old Bronx stomping grounds and takes us down memory lane, pointing out the real locations where he played and went to school as a boy. He shares marvelous details about life in the early '60s and his own parochial school experiences, and talks about how society changed after President Kennedy's assassination. His remarks about the movie itself include a discussion of the lengthy rehearsal process; the attitudes of Streep and Hoffman on the set, and their mastery of the material; the insecurity of Adams, who feared she'd freeze up in the presence of such lauded actors; a few of the differences between the stage play and film; and his collaboration with composer Shore. Shanley also touches upon the characters' individual motivations, but plays his cards very close to the vest, so he doesn't influence our perceptions. Fans of 'Doubt' will find this top-flight track to be an essential companion piece to this excellent motion picture.
- Featurette: "From Stage to Screen" (HD, 19 minutes) – One of the more substantive featurettes I've seen, this absorbing short provides Shanley the opportunity to both discuss the material himself and interview Streep about it. We learn that he based the character of Sister James on his own first grade teacher (who shares her thoughts about 'Doubt' in the piece) and hear about the struggles of adapting and opening up a four-character, one-location play for the screen. Shanley also talks about the importance of shooting on location in New York and how he cast the film, while Streep, Hoffman, Davis, and Adams individually discuss their own connections to the play, their preparation, and relationships with each other. Streep is especially articulate and passionate, and just as fascinating to watch personally expressing herself as she is inhabiting a role on screen.
- Featurette: "The Cast of 'Doubt'" (HD, 14 minutes) – Streep, Hoffman, Davis, and Adams submit to a casual chat with Entertainment Weekly's Dave Karger, who's clearly out of his league with these heavyweight performers. The lightweight Karger asks lame questions about hair and shooting outside as opposed to inside, and it's a credit to the actors that they're able to craft substantive answers and steer the discussion toward issues they think are important to address. That – along with their comfortable mutual rapport – makes this piece worth watching.
- Featurette: "Scoring 'Doubt'" (HD, 4 minutes) – Composer Howard Shore relates his "chamber music approach" toward the film's score, and how he tried not to cast judgment with his themes. This brief but illuminating featurette is enhanced by shots of the actual scoring sessions, which illustrate the technical process of matching music with various dramatic scenes.
- Featurette: "Sisters of Charity" (HD, 6 minutes) – A quartet of nuns from this dwindling order discuss their daily routine, the origin of their habit, and strict atmosphere in which they lived. They also touch upon the changes inflicted upon them when the Second Vatican Council demanded they modernize in 1962.
- Theatrical Trailers (HD) – Previews for 'The Proposal,' 'Lost,' and a promo for Miramax Films.
My favorite film of 2008, 'Doubt' is a powerful, thought-provoking drama that begs to be analyzed and debated on a variety of levels. The astounding work of Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, and Viola Davis – all of whom were Oscar nominated – lifts this movie to a lofty plane few others in its class achieve. Factor in quality video and audio, and a modest array of absorbing supplements, and you've got a very tempting Blu-ray package with big replay potential. Rent it, buy it, steal it, but by all means, see 'Doubt.'
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