John Patrick Shanley adapts his 2004 play, Doubt, for the screen and gets a number of masterclass performances in the process.
I’ve been meaning to watch the film for years. The 2008 recession was not kind to me so it meant picking and choosing what I saw in theaters. The further we get, the more films there are to focus on. Even with subscribing to Netflix back in the day, there were always other films to rent. If not for October 7, I would have watched the film in time for the 15th anniversary in 2023. Better late than never, I suppose.
Shanley goes back to his childhood roots by telling this story. In winning both a Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize for the play, a big screen adaptation probably felt inevitable at some point. At that point, it becomes a question of opening up the story for the screen. Any successful screenwriter will find the right way to do so, which Shanley does. He must have done something right because he earned himself an Oscar nomination.
Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Meryl Streep) is the principal of Saint Nicholas Church School. She’s not the biggest fan of the parish priest, Father Brendan Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Sister Aloysius thinks she discovered what could be the priest’s downfall. What happens is a matter that comes to her attention by history teacher Sister James (Amy Adams). The priest is spending too much time with Donald Miller (Joseph Foster) and it’s impacting Donald in the classroom. Donald just happens to be the only Black student at the school. They suspect there is more here than meets the eye. Unfortunately, neither woman has any no proof of Flynn’s guilt. Rather than resign, Flynn ends up transferring to a different church.
Sister Aloysius has conversations with Mrs. Miller (Viola Davis), which brings about some of the finest acting in the film. Mrs. Miller reveals that Donald is gay and Donald’s father is homophobic. Mind you, it’s 1964. Her suggestion would be removing Father Flynn from the church rather than her son. Anyway, the change in medium doesn’t matter as much as just having the two of them in conversation. A few years later, the two performers would be competing head to head for Best Actress in a Leading Role. Despite her previous filmography, her ten minutes in this film is a breakout performance. Say what you will about the other performances, Davis delivers the most powerful work in the film by far. Her work here is just as powerful as her performance in Air, which might have been a strong contender in another year.
Stage plays, by nature, are not the easiest to adapt for the screen. They can be too theatrical with constraints in storytelling. Even when opening up for the screen, some scenes still have something of their theatrical roots in the blocking. When one has actors like Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, and Viola Davis bringing the vision to the screen, you know the adaptation is in good hands. All four of them earned Oscar nominations for their work. Shanley makes sure each character gets their shining moment. For Adams, it would be the second of six Oscar nominations without winning but that’s another article for another day. While Davis didn’t win for Doubt, she would go on to win an EGOT and achieve the Triple Crown of Acting for other performances.
By filming in the Bronx, Doubt is able to go back to Shanley’s roots. They film in the same location where the filmmaker grew up. The school is still located at the same address. A number of background performers attended the school as a child. It lends a feel of authenticity to the story that Shanley is telling.
Howard Shore composes the score. His work has a way of focusing on the center of the story. Shore looks for the smallest details and builds up the themes and cues in that matter. The wind even has a theme! Some of the intimate settings, such as lighting and cinematography, play a role in how Shore approaches his work. For instance, he goes for a piece of chamber music during a scene at the church.
Doubt never feels too theatrical in adapting for the screen but the powerhouse performances by the cast only serve to elevate John Patrick Shanley’s script.
DIRECTOR/SCREENWRITER: John Patrick Shanley
CAST: Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Viola Davis, Alice Drummond, Audrie Neenan, Susan Blommaert, Carrie Preston, John Costelloe
Miramax released Doubt in theaters on December 12, 2008. Grade: 4/5
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