John Patrick Shanley’s play struck me, in its initial run, as a superficial exploration of human foible, “entertaining” in a very debased sense of that term for the ways in which it simulated (rather than stimulated) thinking. Whether Father Brendan Flynn did indeed molest young, black, probably gay altar boy Donald Muller is the work’s hot-button hook. The real sparks come from watching Flynn and the cold-as-ice principal Sister Aloysius Beauvier circle around each other like beasts of prey, the former maintaining his innocence, the latter convinced (despite lack of absolute evidence) of his guilt.
Shanley’s choices are easy, too transparently dichotomous; even the blurring of the perspectival lines can be boiled down, with little cerebral effort, to “Did he?” or “Didn’t he?”. It’s not unlike a particularly gory bout of Pay-Per-View boxing, except here the punches are verbal and the match ends in an ambigui-obvious draw. Shanley closes Doubt on a note of self-conscious uncertainty, satiating the intellectual bloodlust of the theatergoing intelligentsia in much the same way P.T. Barnum induced his paying customers to gaze goggle-eyed and gratified upon the non-existent Great Unknown. Pulitzer!
I don’t think Doubt is any kind of truly serious effort, and it especially pales in comparison to the second-tier Shanley’s betters (the monologue from Edward Albee’s The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?—in which 50ish architect Martin talks about being sexually turned on, if only for a moment, by his infant son—better explores, in mere minutes, the nuances of transgressive desires and the temptations inherent in progressive ideologies), but taken on its own the play at least provides a solid schematic showcase for its performers. It’s a shallow work easily interpreted, and Shanley’s own film version is no different in the low bar it aims for and ultimately attains.
The cinematic touches are to-a-T embarrassing, visual symbolism writ signpost large. A harsh Bronx winter (blowing leaves, torrential rain, even a lightning storm during the final confrontation between Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep) and Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman)) and canted camera angles are quite blatant metaphors for the unseen (God; perspective without proof; etc). Shanley’s decision, probably unavoidable, to literalize the presence of the children, Donald (Joseph Foster) especially, only highlights their make-a-point abstraction, as does the inclusion of several side characters who merely exist to offer the most obvious of parallels. As shown by an eye-rolling cross-cut between rectory and convent (apparently, all priests are chain-smoking carnivores and all nuns are stoic vegetarians), Doubt is weakest as an examination of patriarchy and the wave of permissiveness slowly sweeping the nation post-Kennedy (play and film both are set in 1964, viz. the homonymous Beauvier/Bouvier: clever Shanley, clever).
To the central quartet: Hoffman more shamelessly feminizes Father Flynn as compared to the overemphatic masculine affect given him onstage by Brían F. O’Byrne (I half expected the actor to segue into his limp-wristed Flawless routine when showing off his longer-than-average fingernails to his young male charges). But though the character’s guilt is clear from the start, there are numerous performative grace notes, all piercing and human, that show us the man’s pain (masked in hypocrisy) without ever being obvious, especially in the slight way Hoffman’s voice cracks during the introductory sermon on (*THUD*) “doubt.”
Doubt the film, as opposed to the concept, tends to belabored symbolism and caricature, something especially apparent in the case of Sister Aloysius who nonetheless seems Shanley’s most personal creation. She’s a habit-encased gargoyle, outwardly set in her ways, unyielding to populist tendency, and Streep plays her to the comi-tragic extreme. She’s not our best actress (such sweeping categorization is a fool’s exercise besides), but she is one of our best kinds of actresses, an artist entirely reliant on exterior technique as compared to innate soulfulness. She’s hollow at the core, works from the outside-in to suggest and indicate emotional interiority, which makes her a perfect match for the material. Several colleagues have singled out Viola Davis (playing young Donald’s mother) as Streep’s better, especially in the lengthy scene where she justifies Father Flynn’s attentions to her son, but both seem to me to be working in tandem, their varied methods harmonizing and ultimately bolstering Shanley’s flimsy thematics.
Same goes for Amy Adams as the impressionable Sister James, the meek mouse to Sister Aloysius’ stealthy feline (Shanley even pokes a bit of fun at their relationship in one of his many “opening-out” touches where a teacher brings in a cat to catch a pesky rodent). Both Sisters have what Dame Edna Everage might refer to, per Joan Collins, as “hidden depths,” though the secret facets of their humanity never grow out of an entirely believable place. But Shanley’s picked the right people to sell us this particular bill of goods, and I’d be lying if I didn’t confess to the shiver-up-the-spine I felt upon Streep’s last-line declaration of (*THUD*) “doubts.”
Seems we’re all of us susceptible, even this semi-lapsed Catholic boy, to the con of our beliefs.
Keith Uhlich is editor of The House Next Door.