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.
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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