Typically, a movie only gets awards for editing if it’s action-packed or a thriller — something show-offy. Among other things, Doubt reminded me of the virtues of clean, unobtrusive editing that keeps a drama ticking along like a Rolex. Adapted by writer-director John Patrick Shanley from his own 2004 play, the film is practically all talk, all ideas, all stagebound (despite a few stabs at “opening it out”). Yet none of it is stifling. Editor Dylan Tichenor (who cut three of Paul Thomas Anderson’s films) clips scenes to the bone and essence. Throw in master cinematographer Roger Deakins’ magical control of deep grays and browns, and you’d have a beautiful piece of filmmaking even if it were acted by robots in clown suits.

Which it isn’t, obviously; Doubt is very much engineered as the Acting Olympics, mainly enacting the conflict between a priest who befriends a young black boy and a nun who suspects impropriety between the two. Here you have Philip Seymour Hoffman as the priest, Father Flynn, a pre-Vatican II progressive thinker, and Meryl Streep as Sister Aloysius, a headmistress whose name strikes terror in the students of the church’s adjoining school. You might think you know how this will play out: the sweaty, flabby, furtive Hoffman of all those P.T. Anderson films up against the she-who-must-be-obeyed Streep of The Devil Wears Prada. But the story adds up to a great deal more than that, introducing shadings of ambiguity and failure on both sides.

Amy Adams has largely been left out of the discussion, but her character — the young teacher Sister James, an innocent who wants to believe, like Anne Frank, that at heart man is good — may actually be the quiet key to the movie. Like Father Flynn, Sister James wishes for a more inclusive and less forbidding Church. (In about a year — the movie is set in 1964 — they would get their wish.) To what extent is Sister Aloysius aligned against Father Flynn simply because he heralds change? When Sister James furiously accuses Sister Aloysius of persecuting the priest because he uses a ballpoint pen, it’s not as ridiculous as it sounds. Adams has the least flamboyant role and holds it rock-steady.

One subtext of the Father Flynn/Sister Aloysius scenes finds the current queen of American acting coolly taking the measure of its prince. It’s fun to view the movie that way, especially when Hoffman’s Flynn is summoned to the headmistress’ office and sits at her desk, thinking nothing of it — it’s the priest’s (literal) God-given right in the patriarchy. Hoffman keeps any mannerisms tamped down hard, while Streep lets the left side of her mouth sag, giving her a permanent scowl of disapproval. In this year of superhero movies, these two are Hulk vs. Abomination, Batman vs. the Joker — though we’re not sure which is which. They bash each other with insinuations and contemptuous capsule reviews of one another, battling for the soul of the Church, yet neither of them is really right or wrong.

Shanley has constructed a tightly hermetic parable of ideas that go beyond “did he do it/is she off her meds.” Beneath it all is that detail of the priest casually taking the nun’s seat: it speaks volumes about where the Church is going and how far it still needs to go. The contested boy seems almost an afterthought, a catalyst; even his mother (Viola Davis in a virtuoso cameo) doesn’t really care if the priest is interfering with him, as long as someone cares about him.

Doubt deals in certain stereotypes and plays on contemporary prejudices — the sneeringly accusatory old bat, the chummy priest who likes to hang out with boys — in order to haul out that old Rashomon saw the unknowability of truth. It’s pristinely made, though, with enough subtlety amid the grandstanding to kick this a notch or two above the Oscar-bait actors’ playpen you might expect.

Explore posts in the same categories: adaptation, drama

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