Magazine article The Christian Century

Doubt

Magazine article The Christian Century

Doubt

Article excerpt

Doubt. Written and directed by John Patrick Shanley. Starring Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams and Viola Davis.

It is commonly assumed, and regularly taught, that the key difference between playwriting and screenwriting is that the former tells the bulk of its story with words (it is dialogue-driven), while the latter relies more heavily on images (it is camera-driven). This may be true, but a less obvious difference is that onstage one needs words and performance to draw the audience's attention to a certain spot or action ("Hey, look here!"), while onscreen all you need is a close-up or a camera move--the viewer can't look anywhere else, no matter how much they might wish they could. It is a technique that served such visually teasing directors as Hitchcock and Polanski quite well, and it is at the heart of the film adaptation of Doubt, a 2004 Pulitzer Prize-winning play by John Patrick Shanley.

Doubt is a mystery story embracing a morality play concerning the things we know and those we only suspect. The tale takes place at St. Nicholas Catholic parish in the Bronx in 1964, where the old ways are gradually changing. President Kennedy, the patron saint of Catholic schoolboys in the 1960s, has been assassinated, leading to a new national sense of vulnerability. The reforms of Vatican II have begun to trickle down to the priests and nuns. The young and energetic priest, Father Brendan Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman), represents the future, and the strict and stern school principal, Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Meryl Streep), personifies tradition. This is made clear during Sister Aloysius's initial entrance, where she whacks a misbehaving kid across the back of the head to get his attention. The character in the midst of this ecclesiastical struggle, the one the viewer identifies with, is the sweet and dedicated Sister James (Amy Adams), who admires the compassion of Father Flynn while respecting the dedication of Sister Aloysius.

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She is also the character who opens up the story's Pandora's box, turning a growing hostility between Sister Aloysius and the priest into an all-out war. She is concerned about the amount of personal attention that Father Flynn is paying to Donald Muller (Joseph Foster II), who is the school's first and only black student. It could just be that Father Flynn is reaching out to help a young boy in need, which is what she wants to believe, or it could be that Father Flynn is engaged in an unhealthy relationship with the boy, which is what she fears. …

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