Philip Seymour Hoffman being pit against Meryl Streep is a bit like watching Federer play Nadal
Cast: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Meryl Streep, Amy Adams, Viola Davis
Director: John Patrick Shanley
Year of Release: 2008
Doubt begins with a sermon, but Father Brendan Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is not pedantic when speaking from the pulpit. He starts by asking the members of his parish an unusual question – “What do you do when you’re not sure?” There’s an unprecedented empathy and assurance in his words. A crisis of faith, he says, is common –“Doubt can be a bond as powerful and sustaining as certainty.”
Situated in the Bronx of 1964, St Nicholas’s Church seems to have chosen liberalism over obstinate righteousness. Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep), principal of the parish school, doesn’t take kindly to this new leniency. She prefers a strict order, and as her path crosses that of Father Flynn’s, we ask a familiar question – What happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object?
Twelve-year-old Donald Miller (Joseph Foster), the only black child in school, is in need of a ‘protector’, and Father Flynn soon adopts that role. Sister James (Amy Adams) suspects that the relationship the priest has with this student is inappropriate, and Sister Aloysius gets all the ammunition she needs. There’s something seminal about the scene in which the two nuns confront a priest, who in the pecking order, is their superior. Like an errant child, Father Flynn is called to the principal’s office, and power equations between the three then choreograph the drama that follows.
Father Flynn starts by taking Sister Aloysius’ chair. She demonstrates her annoyance with a glance, and is then displeased about the fact that he keeps his nails long, that he likes three spoonfuls of sugar in his tea, that he uses a ballpoint pen. Father Flynn meanwhile takes out a little pad and jots down the topic of his next sermon – intolerance. Watching Philip Seymour Hoffman being pit against Meryl Streep is a bit like watching Federer play Nadal. The scene seems like one long rally that has the actors raise their verbal aggression with each volley. Philip Seymour’s very presence disturbs the discipline Streep so prizes, and Amy Adams reluctantly becomes the awkward and nervous referee.
Any storyteller will admit that addressing child abuse is never easy. Spotlight, this year’s Best Picture winner at the Academy Awards, is a good example of how one can still address the horrors of such misdeeds without submitting to a tone that is shrill. Spotlight and Doubt both tackle the unfortunately pertinent issue of sexual abuse by clergymen, but unlike Spotlight, truth and veracity are hard to find in Doubt. Sister Aloysius’ conviction borders on vendetta, and when Father Flynn demands she lets the matter be, you can’t be sure if he is issuing a threat or a defence. Sister Aloysius tells Father Flynn, “I have my certainty.” He says, “Certainty is an emotion, not a fact.”
Director John Patrick Shanley had adapted his own his Pulitzer-winning play to make Doubt. Intended to be a parable, there are numerous instances in Doubt where even the smallest of props assume great significance. At one point, a cat goes on the hunt for a mouse, and Sister Aloysius looks at the changing wind as an omen. Including Viola Davis, who plays Donald’s mother, Streep, Adams and Hoffman were all nominated for Oscars. Though it is perhaps unfair to single out one amongst them, it becomes hard to keep your eyes off Philip Seymour Hoffman. The actor had once fittingly played ‘The Master’ and Doubt leaves you with a crippling nostalgia for his prowess.