Doubt centres on Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep), principal of a Catholic school in the Bronx who becomes suspicious of the relationship between Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Donald Miller (Joseph Foster), a young African-American student. The film is set in 1965, in a Catholic school in the Bronx.
Doubt is based on a play of the same name by writer/director John Patrick Shanley. The film questions the hierarchy of the church, this is particularly interesting when examined in the wake of the child abuse investigations in Ireland in recent years. Sister Aloysius does not turn a blind eye to her suspicions as many did, but rather followed a line of enquiry to ensure the safety of a child in her care.
Meryl Streep as Sister Aloysius begins the film as the perfect villain. As Sister James (Amy Adams) tells her “all the children are uniformly terrified of you” and for the first half of the film Sister Aloysius shows no redeeming qualities. She is austere and unforgiving. Once Sister James tells Sister Aloysius of her suspicions regarding the relationship between Donald Miller and Father Flynn, however, Aloysius’ façade begins to crumble and we catch glimpses of the person underneath and begin to understand the basis for her concern for the child in question. Meryl Streep conveys both the austere exterior and the more humane qualities of her character with ease, but perhaps her greatest skill in this film lies with her delivery of sarcastic one liners, mostly directed at Hoffman, which bring some much needed humour to the film.
Although Streep is the main focus of the film, her character would have not had the range or emotional reach without Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams’ characters, who Aloysius accuses and shares her suspicions with, respectively. Hoffman allows sympathy to shift for and against him without ever challenging it, allowing the audience to make their own assumptions about his characters. Adams justifies her Oscar nomination with an understated role. She allows Aloysius to dominate her, but speaks her mind when she feels it is justified. An interesting thought regarding the film is Adams’ absence from the final confrontations, how different would the film have been, I wonder, if her character had been present?
In the end, Doubt becomes less about the issue at hand, but the interaction between the wonderfully realised characters in a film that raises more questions than it answers.
Doubt opens in Ireland on Friday February 27th 2009