Magazine article The American Conservative

Through a Glass Darkly

Magazine article The American Conservative

Through a Glass Darkly

Article excerpt

LIKE A GREAT baseball player's career, Meryl Streep's three decades in the movies can be depicted in a few statistics: 14 Oscar nominations, four children, one husband, zero rehabs. Her new role as Sister Aloysius, the fearsome Mother Superior of a 1964 parochial school in the film version of John Patrick Shanley's drama "Doubt," would seem like the perfect outlet for her theatricality.

After all, it's a charismatic job. When I entered St. Francis de Sales in 1964, all the big kids in the second grade explained that I might not survive being sent to the principal because before Sister Adrian entered the convent she had been a lady professional wrestler.

Unfortunately, Streep's performance never quite harmonizes with Shanley's somber adaptation of his Pulitzer-winning drama about the knuckle-rapping principal's quick conjecture that a likable progressive priest is molesting a 14-year-old altar boy. Streep's hamming up Sister Aloysius as the Wicked Witch of the Bronx sounds entertaining, but she runs out of invention, perhaps due to her deprived upbringing as an affluent Presbyterian.

As a film, "Doubt" is a tidy he-said-she-said play (imagine "Sleuth" with four characters instead of two) by the Oscar-winning screenwriter of 1987's "Moonstruck."

Philip Seymour Hoffman (an Oscar winner himself for "Capote") plays Father Flynn, the newly arrived priest who is the state-of-the-art Vatican II cleric: progressive, genial, even cool. The priest is particularly solicitous of the feelings of the grade school's first black student, a lonely eighth-grade boy.

Hoffman radiates so much acting technique that he's a bit miscast as the guiltily cringing molester: you keep expecting the expert thespian to turn on his reality distortion field and bluff his way out of the jam his character is in, but he never does.

Sister Aloysius is deeply suspicious of this trendy liberal, so she instructs a kindly novice teacher to be on the lookout for any funny stuff. Young Sister James is portrayed by Hollywood's perpetual ingenue, Amy Adams of the Disney musical "Enchanted." Once again, the casting seems a bit off. If the Mother Superior in "The Sound of Music" could recognize that Julie Andrews wasn't cut out to be a nun, surely the even girlier Amy Adams is a little doubtful? …

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