Friday, February 27, 2009

Circle of Doubt

Suspicions whether founded or not can have a profound impact.   This is the idea behind John Patrick Shanley's Doubt, adapted from his Tony winning play by the same name.  The story deals with an aging nun's crusade to expose a priest in her parish as a child molester.  The question of the priest's guilt is planted in her head by a naive young nun who witnesses a series of circumstantial encounters between the father and the boy and -- driven by feelings of inadequacy, voices her suspicions to the elder sister.   

As the story unfolds, we learn that the boy Father Flynn is accused of corrupting is the only black student at the school -- a child whose real father beats him in response to his confessions of homosexuality. We are also told that the boy's race might put him in serious jeopardy, if not for the special interest Father Flynn takes in protecting him.  The evidence that points to their illicit relationship is inconclusive and when the net begins to tighten, we watch as Sister Beauvier foregoes due process and her sacred vows in order to weed out the truth.  Although she insists she is certain of his guilt, she later admits to having doubts about her own accusations and yet she continues to push, pry and bully -- even when it isn't rational.

The three central performances by Meryl Streep as Sister Beauvier, Phillip Seymour Hoffman as Father Flynn and Amy Adams as the naive Sister James are brilliant, but the screenplay lets them down.  The problem with the movie is it asks you to engage with a debate rather than a story.  On a thematic level, the insightful Mr. Shanley could not find a better milieu to explore. He uses the catholic church, circa 1960's New York as a perfect junction point to address the growing debate between tradition and change, religious duty and social progress.  The movie and the play challenge us to consider which of these values is more important.  On top of this, we have a mystery.  Is the father guilty and if so what does this mean?  

These are provocative moral dilemmas but the characters are schematic.  They are merely envoys to articulate Mr. Shanley's debate.  When a play is adapted to the screen, there is a presumption that it must be 'opened up,' to accommodate the story's movement through a greater variety of locales, on a bigger canvas.  This is the approach that Mr. Shanley has taken and ironically it undoes everything he has so carefully conceived.  Material like this demands greater introspection from the characters and greater layers of intimacy between them as their beliefs and barriers are stripped away.  

The most powerful scene in the movie is a conversation between Sister Beauvier and Mrs. Miller, the boy's mother (played to perfection by Viola Davis).  In this scene, Mrs. Miller connects with the issues surrounding her son and makes an unexpected emotional plea.  The movie needs more moments like it.  Moments where the characters grasp the enormity of their choices.  We as an audience need to see the impact that the issues have on each of the characters outside of their confrontations, when they are alone.  Instead Doubt just circles the debate.  It never fully brings us inside it.