As a taut exercise in suspense and carefully plotted “ambiguity,” John Patrick Shanley’s play Doubt deserved its acclaim. It worked on stage, even if the lauded performances of Cherry Jones and Brían F. O’Byrne seemed a touch broad (their outer-borough accents were laid on with a shovel). The play was basically a boxing match between Jones’s steely Sister Aloysius and O’Byrne’s charismatic priest, and though there was chatter in the press about whether or not the priest actually molested a boy at his parish, it was very clear from the start of the play that he had. The most daring scene in Doubt is Sister Aloysius’s brief but harrowing meeting with the molested boy’s mother, played by Adriane Lenox, who rightly won a Tony for her riveting work. In just a few minutes, Lenox delivered a kaleidoscopic portrait of an upbeat, desperate woman who knows everything that is going on with her son and makes a startling case for the good the priest might be doing him. That scene was the hinge of the whole evening and its most genuine claim to intriguing drama.
In the film version of Doubt, which Shanley has written and directed, Viola Davis has been given Lenox’s small, pivotal, virtuoso role. Davis plays it very differently than the quicksilver Lenox; she’s stealthy and cautious, and her presence fills the screen with a rage that she can barely contain. The scene is still impressive, but it doesn’t carry the weight that it did on stage, partly because Shanley has made the mistake of “opening out” his own play by chopping up their meeting into an introduction in Sister Aloysius’s office and then a long walk outside in the autumn air. Worse than this, Shanley dissipates the strength of his material throughout by cutting it up into shot/reverse-shot talking bouts, so that the actors can’t build the necessary tension together.
Casting Philip Seymour Hoffman as the priest is a radical error; it feels like almost a perverse bit of sabotage. For the all-important scene with the mother to work, the priest needs to be a charming, seductive man, something Hoffman refuses to attempt; the role needs a Russell Crowe, or a Jeff Bridges. As it stands, we can only cringe at his character’s sodden duplicity and hope that his head will someday explode with all his pent-up anguish; I cannot be alone in my wish to never have to endure Hoffman having a noisy, self-indulgent tantrum in close-up on screen ever again. Conversely, Amy Adams is perfect as the young, trusting Sister James, while acting students are sure to marvel at Meryl Streep’s portrayal of Sister Aloysius, a watchful, red-eyed mother hen who knows she has to bluff and resort to dirty-pool tactics to get rid of this force of evil in her midst.
In her scenes with Hoffman, Streep is understandably flustered and cowed by his mammoth overacting, and in their last confrontation he succeeds in shouting her into submission. But she has rarely been as vulnerable on screen as she is in several moments here, not least her fully felt declaration of doubt at the conclusion of the film. Doubt doesn’t work fully on screen as it did on stage, but it’s worth seeing for Streep’s grace notes. Watch for the moment when she mentions her husband who died in World War II; almost any other actress would have shown us a flash of grief, or a stiffening sort of proud stoicism, but what does Streep do? She tugs at her black nun bonnet, irritably! As Stella Adler said, your talent as an actor is in your choices, and Streep’s choices are as fresh and penetrating in Doubt as they were 30 years ago in The Deer Hunter.
Image is very nice on this DVD of John Patrick Shanley's Doubt. My only complaint is that dark colors are a little inky and lack detail, particularly on the nun's black habits and robes-of which there are many. Sound is good as well: Meryl Streep's thick New York accent (her very first bellowed line, "Boy!," comes immediately to mind) and Philip Seymour Hoffman's belly-full-o'-wine laughter resounds like psalms reaching the heavens.
When I pressed "play" I was subjected to an anti-smoking commercial. I'm tempted to dock this DVD a star or two for that, but at least it was in the spirit of Sister Aloysius's style of pontification. The rest of the DVD's extra features are nothing to scoff at. From casting extras and building the sets and costumes for the film to his experience in Catholic school and how he gave himself a bloody nose to get out of class because he was "bored," there's pretty much something for everyone in Shanley's comprehensive audio commentary. The writer-director displays a keen understanding of his actors and talks candidly about his feelings regarding certain shots in the film-or lack thereof (he discusses his wise decision not to cut to a flashback of Hoffman grabbing the wrist of a male student early in the story when Sister Aloysius confronts the unsettlingly long-fingernailed priest about it later in the film). The 20-minute featurette "From Stage to Screen" includes interviews with Shanley, who discusses the background of the play and its transition to the silver screen, members of the cast and crew, and the nun on which Amy Adams's Sister James is based. Most fascinating are clips of Shanley interviewing Streep, whose observations and choices as an actor never cease to amaze. Streep seems under the weather, though no less opinionated, throughout the 14-minute "The Cast of Doubt," in which a velvet blazer-donning David Karger (of Entertainment Weekly) interviews the four leads of the film. Also included: "Sisters of Charity," a featurette ostensibly composed of footage Shanley captured while researching the lives and experiences of the nuns that he gave to Streep and Adams in preparation for their roles, and a brief featurette on the film's music.
There's no doubt that Doubt has been given a highly exalted DVD treatment.