Friday, January 2, 2009

Staged Drama: Doubt

The role of the cold, intimidating Sister Aloysius Beauvier, who if she worshipped fashion instead of God might have been the villain of The Devil Wears Prada, went to Meryl Streep. The role of the twinkly and naive Sister James, who is a mere pregnancy away from starring in Junebug, went to Amy Adams. For the role of the potentially pedophilic, or maybe just misunderstood, Father Flynn, a call went out to Philip Seymour Hoffman, who won his Oscar playing the equally loved and loathed Truman Capote. And so when it came time to select a director for Doubt, the film adaptation of John Patrick Shanley's Pulitzer Prize winning stage drama, the pragmatic producers picked none other than Shanley himself, presumably on the hunch that practice makes perfect.

The bad news is, it doesn't. Doubt might be one of the finest acted films of 2008, but it’s undone by a mediocre directorial effort that suggests Shanley doesn’t fully appreciate the differences between stage and screen. Here’s a case of a director knowing his material too well, and in all the wrong ways. On stage, the enigmatic tug-of-war between Sister Aloysius and Father Flynn thrives on the shadowy distance between the actors and the audience. On screen, however, that sense of mystery is obliterated. Here, Sister Aloysius and Father Flynn are less ambiguous than they are contradictory: Their dialogue suggests one thing, their expressions suggest something else. The result isn’t doubt or even vagueness. Instead it’s the sense that this two-way interrogation is in fact nothing more than a game, an exercise among the captains of the debate team.

The crux of the problem is the camera that never lies. Oh, sure, it misleads. Films ranging from The Conversation to The Sixth Sense have cashed in on the deceptive nature of the straightforward image. But as an audience we are defaulted to assign meaning to everything that we see, and Doubt reveals too much too plainly. To look into Father Flynn’s eyes – something the stage doesn’t allow – is to have an opinion that renders his testimony moot. That makes Doubt, which in stage form was called Doubt, A Parable, a primer on the power of the close-up that aligns Shanley’s film more closely with Frost/Nixon than A Few Good Men, to name two other stage-to-screen adaptations. Just like Richard Nixon’s facial expressions provided the full confession he never quite articulated to interviewer David Frost, Father Flynn’s countenance reveals that there isn’t much mysterious about Doubt after all.

It’s not for lack of effort. Within this drawn-out affair, the framework of what I’m sure was a knockout play is evident. Early in the film, for example, Shanley toys with our preconceptions about sexually predatory priests, giving us a moment alone between Father Flynn and Donald (Joseph Foster) when the priest gives the altar boy a gift. Later, Shanley gives us a moment in the gym when Father Flynn gives basketball instructions to knobby-kneed boys in shorts who in his presence manage to seem half undressed. In those scenes, we rush to the same judgment of Sister Aloysius, because, like her, we’ve seen things. The cloud of the Catholic Church’s abuse scandals hovers ominously above the screen, and so we sit expectant of the moment when Father Flynn will touch one of the boys improperly. When such a moment never comes, we’re left with only our suspicions. And so later, when Sister Aloysius makes an extremely serious allegation based on equally flimsy evidence, Shanley’s drama makes us allies in her witch hunt, because her gut feeling is ours too.

In that moment, we’re hooked. But then things fall apart. Streep brings appropriate heft to her part – though if you want to see a chilling nun, check out Geraldine McEwan in 2002’s The Magdalene Sisters – but Hoffman’s dance isn’t with Father Flynn’s accuser but with the doubt the film’s title demands. In his fiery confrontation with Sister Aloysius, Flynn acts neither like a criminal caught in the act nor like someone wrongfully accused. (Mild spoiler warning: There is perhaps a third option, that Flynn was guilty in the past but not in this case. Nonetheless …) The result is that Doubt’s big dramatic moments feel like just that: drama. When Streep rips the crucifix from around her neck, the gesture is as unnecessarily oversized as Shanley’s all-too-numerous (and gag-me silly) God-in-the-weather metaphors. And thus Doubt reduces itself to a stage play, stuck under glass, caught on film.

It’s as if Shanley, whose only other movie is Joe Versus The Volcano, couldn’t think beyond the walls of his de facto courtroom drama. The director’s attempts to make his film cinematic range from the lazy (tilting his camera to suggest moral tumult) to the curious (cutting away from Father Flynn’s parable on lies for an unnecessary feathers-to-the-wind reenactment). Viola Davis, as Donald’s mother, briefly liberates Doubt from its drab little cage in a walk-and-talk outside St. Nicholas school in which Sister Aloysius voices her suspicions about Father Flynn. But even that scene manages to make Doubt’s dramatic landscape diminish, as the unexpected response of Mrs. Miller presents the audience with a moral dilemma more challenging than the one surrounding Father Flynn. And thus the main event seems almost superfluous.

That doesn’t mean it’s a drag, necessarily. Movies like Doubt, with their multiple opportunities for highlight-reel grandstanding, are built for awards season, and it’s frequently enjoyable to watch Streep, Adams and Hoffman trade punches like heavyweights. (Streep, it won’t surprise you, has a thick accent to match the 1964 Bronx setting; of course, that raises the question of why no one else is so afflicted.) Still, it’s startling – and disappointing – to reach the end of the exercise and feel that Shanley has put numerous weighty issues on the table without forcing us to bite into any of them. This film’s form of doubt doesn’t gnaw at us, it removes us. And so no matter the intent, the lesson to be learned from Shanley’s adaptation isn’t one of ethics, religion or morality. It’s one of entertainment: When it comes to doubt, creating it and dramatizing it are two different things.


Anonymous said...

Very fine piece here Jason. I had discussed in my own review of the film, the inherent difficulties in transferring a stage work to the screen, a problem that has raged on for decades. It's rather a damned if you do, damned if you don't situation, but of course we have had successful films made from stage origins...i.e. WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF?, SLEUTH, even FROST/NIXON to an extent.
I quite agree with you that Shanley didn't leave teh box so to speak, but I am not sure it should have. I am always concerned that to transcribe the work in more cinematic terms may not violate the essence of teh material.
Living near NYC, I was luckily able to see the play, and apart from the ending (the stage work had you believing the priest was innocent, while the film seemed to lead you to believe the other way) I think there was many similarities in the presentation.
You are quite right, methinks to praise the acting. All four gave exceptional performances, and no doubt (no pun intended!) some if not all will get Oscar nods, for whatever that's worth.
Your review gives food for thought, and while this film is hovering on making my Top 10,l your essay may have have tipped the scale to the negative sise. LOL!
Nice site here. I'll visit again.

Jason Bellamy said...

Interesting about the stage play. I certainly agree with you about the conclusion of the film, and I'm not surprised that on stage there was more, well, doubt.

Fox said...

And thus Doubt reduces itself to a stage play, stuck under glass, caught on film.

I like that.

As you get at in your final paragraphy, I feel convinced that this films is nothing more than a stunt. And that works well for Shanley, b/c, as you said, he doesn't have to commit to anything.

What I'm about to say could be a spoiler...

But for selfish reasons, I'm curious if you thought Father Flynn was indeed guilty. I saw this movie with my mom over X-Mas and she was absolutely convinced that he was. So much so that she was shocked when I said I wasn't.

Now, to me, that's the cliffhanger Shanley wants to leave us with, but I wondered if anyone else felt so convinced - either way - about what did or didn't happen.

Jason Bellamy said...

** SPOILER WARNING (in case it's necessary) **

Fox: That's part of the problem with "Doubt." I'm absolutely convinced that Father Flynn is guilty of something, because he admits as much to Sister Aloysius with that comment about mortal sin, or whatever that was.

At that point, isn't it almost irrelevant whether or not he did something to this boy? Because the guy is a priest -- he's one of the few people that we expect perfection from. So do we feel any better if Father Flynn is a reformed child molester? I certainly don't. (I'm all for reform, but I kind of think people of the cloth get one chance to get it right. It's the nature of the job.)

Also, as I imply above, Father Flynn certainly doesn't respond in the way of the totally innocent, if that's what he is. So, yes, he's guilty of something. And I think the "doubt" of Sister Aloysius is actually more interesting if it's placed not in relation to the validity of her accusation (or her means of proving it) but in regard to what her allegation means for her vocation if it's true.

So, having said that, clarify for me, because this is interesting: Did you come away thinking it's possible that Father Flynn might be completely and entirely innocent, in this case and others before?

Mark said...

I think this was an excellent review, one of your best. It synced perfectly with my own problems with the film's direction and its awkward conversion from stage to screen. And you also helped articulate for me my nagging dissatisfaction with the movie's ambiguity; Flynn's guilt, some guilt, isn't really in question for me, but what is it that we're supposed to be left with? In that regard the the movie and even the underlying theme felt unresolved to me in a way that seemed more manipulative than creative or interesting.