Movie News & Reviews

Heavy-handed themes cast a shadow on 'Doubt'

Part of an old Irish toast goes: "May you be half an hour in heaven before the devil knows you're dead."

With "Doubt" that toast might be "May you be half an hour happy in bed before you realize the film you've just seen wasn't as great as you thought."

Sometimes it's the drudgery of film criticism to not leave well enough alone. Most of us love movies so much that we pick apart every film we see. It's in our nature, I guess. Coincidentally, one's nature figures prominently in "Doubt."

"Doubt" will deservedly wind up on many 10-best lists and will most likely garner a gaggle of Oscar nominations.

At first it seems to be an enthralling morality play with superior actors and tense dialogue and well worth your time.

Unfortunately, on a second viewing, the seams begin to show, the performances seem less heady, the profundities not so profound. Its writ-large themes of rigidity of purpose versus progress, moral certitude and questions of faith and sexuality seem more like shooting fish in a barrel.

Any timely parallels to our post-9/11 society become feeble, and the ending feels contrived. "Doubt" wants desperately to manipulate your emotions, and it does so to a point.

Written for the screen and directed by John Patrick Shanley and based on his Pulitzer Prize-winning play, "Doubt" is set in a Catholic school in 1964 Bronx, where a stern nun and sensitive priest clash after she accuses him of abusing a student.

Perennial award bait Meryl Streep plays Sister Aloysius Beauvier, the strict disciplinarian principal who begins to question the relationship between Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and the school's first black student.

Shanley, whose only other directorial effort was 1990's "Joe Versus the Volcano," has had a spotty career. Mainly a screenwriter, he has been responsible for everything from the superior "Moonstruck" and "Five Corners" to the epic man-monkey love groaner "Congo."

In "Doubt," he has managed to pull off quite the hat trick. His direction is reasonably assured and some of the dialogue is truly electric. Father Flynn's all-too-brief sermons are riveting.

Hoffman, as usual, gives a powerful performance as the progressive Flynn, investing the character with equal parts sensitivity and authority.

Streep's Sister Aloysius is a more prickly matter. There's a fine line between caricature and character, and she barely manages to avoid the edge.

"Doubt" is enriched by more than the two powerhouse leads. Evocative cinematography by Roger Deakins opens up the stagebound proceedings.

When a drama such as "Doubt" comes along, it's manna from heaven for a public starving for "meaningful" films.

"Doubt" is, in the end, a one-note film. How long that note can resonate will be telling, come awards season.

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