The Broadway play goes from the big stage to the big screen as playwright John Patrick Shanley adapts his own work with the help of award-winning film actors Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman.
The film, just like the play, mainly centers around 3 characters at a Catholic prep school. Stern Sister Aloysius (Streep) is approached by young, naive Sister James (Amy Adams) when she sees little Donald Miller (Muller in the play) acting strangely after an encounter with Father Flynn (Hoffman) and smells alcohol on his breath. Aloysius sets about exposing Flynn for “interfering” with the boy even though Flynn explains himself thoroughly. The conflict in the film revolves around the power struggle between priest and nun, as well as “what to do when you’re not sure” as the opening lines of the film suggest.
Writer/director Shanley, whose only prior directing experience was 1990’s Joe Vs. the Volcano, does very little to add depth to the direction. While this is mostly a film that highlights the writing and acting, some of Shanley’s decisions in regard to exhibition are pretty dubious. For instance: there is a strong wind outside the church and someone comments “the wind sure is changing around here;” a janitor uses a cat to catch a mouse and remarks “you need a cat to catch a rat” to which Aloysius raises an eyebrow (and seemingly winks at the camera while simultaneously making guns with her fingers saying “gotcha” as the word “SYMBOLISM” flashes in bold text at the bottom of the screen). In other words, its blatantly obvious when Shanley is employing some tactic to heighten a dramatic situation, when all he needed to do was rely on his more-than-capable actors to express the underlying gravity of every situation. As a director, he tries to spoon-feed the audience the “meaning” of each moment, even though we’re more than capable to figure things out on our own.
In a hyphenated word: top-notch. Streep is up to her usual flawless self. You really can’t typecast a woman like Meryl Streep. She’s played “ruthless” before, but this adds a whole other dimension to her that wasn’t revealed in The Devil Wears Prada. Prada showed us that she’s a vulnerable woman ready to crack, Doubt shows us that inside the shell of a devout, religious Sister can lurk a harsh and sinister woman. She still shows us some of that patented Streep vulnerability, except here she’s acting on what she truly believes is right, not just what is smart.
Hoffman is a worthy adversary. As you watch the film, you’ll wonder if he did the things that Aloysius accuses him of doing, and about every 5 minutes or so you’ll convince yourself one way or the other is true. Upon exiting the film, you’ll still be unsure, and this speaks to the brilliance of Philip Seymour Hoffman. He downplays some situations and over-reacts to others, which make you question whether or not Flynn is being too cautious, or not cautious enough. And just as it is with Shanley’s play, the “real” answer is never revealed, so its up to Hoffman to make very specific choices as an actor.
Supporting the two are Amy Adams as Sister James and Viola Davis as Donald’s Mother. Adams plays the smiley good cop to Streep’s bad and throughout the film begins to crumble under the weight of Sister Aloysius’s accusations. Davis, with barely over 10 minutes (at most) of screen-time in the film packs a might wallop. At the end of the day, all Mrs. Miller wants is for her son to succeed. She seemingly seems like she doesn’t care, which Aloysius calls her out on, and Davis’s monologue following it is the most heart-wrenching moment in the film.
The moments that work best in the film are the same ones that worked well on stage. Namely, scenes when Flynn and Aloysius are going after each other and when Flynn and Aloysius are vying for Sister James’s sympathy. Everything else that Shanley added is out-of-place. There’s a segment added showcasing Sister Aloysius being sentimental and caring toward Sister Veronica (played by Alice Drummond, who was the Librarian in Ghostbusters), which is a cheap ploy to make us see Aloysius’s good side. Also noteworthy is Donald Miller’s presence (the little boy in question) who’s only referred to and never actually seen in the play. Showing each moment that creates the suspicion takes something away from the tense encounters the three characters have, because each layer is both shown to us but also EXPLAINED in the very next scene. Why explain it when we just saw it? Again, Shanley doesn’t trust that his actors will convey meaning and over-writes the script.
Shanley also creates a bigger dichotomy between Flynn and Aloysius, which would work nicely if handled by a better director. Every scene outside of Aloysius’s cold, dark office has her instilling her power over everyone and even her fellow Sisters look at her with the same fear and trepidation as her students. Meanwhile, every scene involving Flynn shows him being the life of the conversation and a warm, funny person. These moments do a nice job of blurring the lines and make you wonder whether Aloysius is after Flynn because she thinks its proper or because he’s not intimidated by her.
As a film inspired by a play, it’s a surprise to me that all of the sets are so bland. Nothing sticks out at you while watching the film except for the wonderful performances. The cinematography is handled by my personal favorite, Roger Deakins. The film has the yellow quality of an O Brother, Where Art Thou? and the drab lighting of a drama like Mystic River but inexplicably boasts tilted camera angles that denote a villain from the 1966 “Batman” series. Are they trying to liken Sister Aloysius to Burgess Meredith’s Penguin? The music by Howard Shore is not really noteworthy, either.
Shanley and producer Scott Rudin assembled an A+ crew which includes 4-time Oscar nominee Ann Roth on costumes, There Will Be Blood editor Dylan Tichenor, and nominated production designer David Gropman and under-utilizes all of them. The only person who pulls her weight is Ellen Chenowith, the casting director.
Overall, if you’re a fan of the Tony Award-winning play, you’ll be happy to know that the actors do it justice. But when you look at the fact that Shanley ended up directing this film (even though Doug Hughes, and not Shanley, directed it on STAGE), and Oscar-winning director Roman Polanski did a production of it in Paris in 2006, it makes you wonder why an un-tested director was given the rights to what could’ve been one of the more tense and outright wonderful films of the Oscar season had it been in better hands.