I thought this had one of the best trailers of the year, but unfortunately there is nothing to be discovered from the film itself that you can’t already get out of its 2-minute summary, because it lacks any kind of climax or reveal to give it meaning. The primary complication of Doubt is the suspicion of Sister Aloysious, principal of a Catholic school, that the new priest, Father Flynn, has an inappropriate relationship with the first black student to attend the school in the 1960s. She has no proof but an observation from one of her teachers and a fellow nun, Sister James, that the boy acted strangely after a meeting with Flynn. Her moral certainty leads her on a crusade to discredit the priest and uncover the truth, and she is so convinced that he is lying that she turns to lies herself, breaking down her relationship with God and her faith in herself. This is quite an interesting set-up, and around it revolve several equally interesting subplots, concerning the patriarchy of the church, liberals vs. conservatives within the church, homosexuality, child abuse, methods of teaching, and the implied backstories of several of the characters.
None of this is given much depth, however, and most of it is disposed in favor of eye-rollingly obvious weather metaphors, cat-and-mouse symbolism, and extended scenes of shouting and overacting. Just as the characters refuse to actually utter words like “molestation” and “homosexual,” the film skirts around the real issues at hand in favor of showcasing the actors’ abilities to read lines in ways that will win them awards. Nothing is confronted directly, which becomes incredibly frustrating and confusing. We are practically forced to choose sides, between Sister Aloysious and Father Flynn, but neither of them present particularly compelling arguments for themselves. Aloysious is a more interesting character and Streep’s performance far more nuanced. The nun is a tyrant, ruling over her school in a reign of terror and refusing to show any kind of weakness to anyone. Yet she is still compassionate for those she sees need her help (the boy in question, an old nun who is going blind), and she uses her power to do what she feels is right. Her arc is somewhat tragic, but the script always keeps us at a distance, even as Streep gives brief but beguiling hints of what makes her character tick. Philip Seymour Hoffman is much less compelling, and watching him have red-faced, loud temper tantrums in closeup is wholly unpleasant. The role was written for a charismatic, handsome man, and his casting even further hides the truth, especially in the way the boy’s mother reacts to being told that her son may have been molested. It is never clear whether he is the victim of a bitter woman with a grudge against men, or a sick, manipulative pedophile… and that distinction REALLY needs to be made in order for the film’s messages to have any impact at all.
With all that said, I did rather enjoy the film. The female performances are very solid and interesting, especially Amy Adams, who goes in an entirely new direction with her established persona. Her character has a lot of untapped potential as well as she is innocent and naive and being pulled in both directions in the war between the liberal and the conservative. The pacing is good and the story maintains interest throughout, which only makes its lack of conclusion even more disappointing. Roger Deakins’ lovely cinematography gives the film a cold, sterile atmosphere, and the art direction has wonderful period detail. My mom was about the same age as the kids in the film during that time, and she went to a Catholic school, so it brought back a lot of memories for her… some bad, some good. We were both disappointed that all the provocative aspects of Catholic schools are left untapped her, since they were part of our lives once.