In Hollywood’s golden age, Catholic movies traditionally featured Bing Crosby as a cheerful priest raising funds from rich parishioners and conducting the choir while innocently flirting with Sister Ingrid Bergman who secretly instructs bullied youngsters in the noble art of self-defence. Doubt paints a rather different picture. Written and directed by John Patrick Shanley, it’s based on his Pulitzer Prize-winning play which has now been performed all over the world, directed in London by Nicolas Kent and in Paris by Roman Polanski.
Doubt paints a rather different picture. Written and directed by John Patrick Shanley, it’s based on his Pulitzer Prize-winning play which has now been performed all over the world, directed in London by Nicolas Kent and in Paris by Roman Polanski.
The setting is St Nicholas’s Church in the Bronx, a largely Irish-American parish, where the priest is Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and the principal of the attached grade school is Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep). The time is the autumn of 1964, a year after the assassination of the country’s first Catholic president and shortly after the Second Vatican Council promised to drag the Catholic church into the 20th century.
Shanley, an Irish-American from a blue-collar family in the Bronx, would have been 14 that year and attending a similar school, and the period is captured very precisely without any touches of nostalgia. The scene is cleverly set at the opening when cheerful, fair-haired Father Flynn preaches a sermon about sharing doubts with others in the community and facing them in one’s own life, beginning with the words: “What do you do when you are not sure?” As he preaches with compelling informality, Sister Aloysius stalks the aisles, reprimanding inattentive children. The light glints on her rimless glasses; her forbidding black bonnet and ankle-length habit contrast sharply with the bright, light church. These two characters are on a collision course where decisions on moral and social affairs, as well as on matters of fact, are left to the audience as jurors.
Sister Aloysius, who entered the convent after being widowed in the second world war, represents the old, narrow order. She won’t allow ballpoint pens to be used in the school or secular songs to be sung at the forthcoming carol service. She believes her duty is to protect the children from a corrupt world and put them on the path of righteousness. To achieve this, it is necessary to be feared. Her school and the adjoining convent are austere places, unlike the priests’ worldly, warm-hearted world, which she despises.
Father Flynn, a recent arrival at the church, represents the liberating spirit of Vatican II. He thinks priests should become a loving part of the larger parochial family rather than remain aloof moral exemplars. A significant, perhaps overworked motif in the play is a physical storm that rages around the school, bringing down trees, creating flurries of leaves, symbolising the winds of change sweeping through the Catholic world as well as driving Flynn from his position as pastor.
But there is more to the sister’s opposition. She puts together small gestures of help and affection that Flynn makes towards the boys to form the basis for the charge of paedophilia. His sermon on doubt fuels her suspicions. These infect a kindly young nun, the idealistic, liberal Sister James (Amy Adams), first seen teaching a history lesson on Roosevelt and the meaning of “we have nothing to fear but fear itself”.
Soon, Sister Aloysius convinces herself that Flynn has been molesting an altar boy, 14-year-old Donald Miller, the school’s first black pupil. In a long, superbly written, morally ambiguous sequence, she attempts to get the boy’s mother (Viola Davis) drawn into her crusade only to discover that for her son’s welfare, the woman would accept almost anything Flynn might have done.
Flynn is a loving, kindly, considerate man, popular with the boys and girls and with his congregation. But is he also taking sexual advantage of his charges and being protected by the Catholic hierarchy? Until almost the very end, Sister Aloysius is convinced of her own rectitude and the need to destroy this man. Is this a case of what TS Eliot in Murder in the Cathedral called “doing the right thing for the wrong reason”? Inevitably now we look at this incident of 45 years ago in the light of the exposure of the cover-ups of priests abusing altar boys the world over.
Doubt is a provocative, pared-down work that in the theatre carried the subtitle “A Parable”, and it has four outstanding performances. At the centre are two of the finest actors alive, Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman. Once again, they prove capable of transforming themselves, creating persuasive characters without adopting excessive make-up or a battery of eccentric mannerisms. They’re supported by Amy Adams, who has several excellent scenes as Sister James, a young woman of transparent integrity, and by Viola Davis as Mrs Miller, a loving mother attempting to maintain her personal decency under intolerable conditions. Davis makes an indelible impression in her single scene.