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.