When I looked through the list of films that have been reviewed here at the RBC, it surprised me to learn that neither Keith nor I have featured a movie for which Philip Seymour Hoffman was a main presence. Time to remedy that, post-post-haste. This week’s movie recommendation is John Patrick Shanley’s screen adaptation of his own stage script, Doubt (2008).
It’s 1964, and the Catholic Church is undergoing a period of transformation, as it recognizes that the ways of the past are ill-suited to the realities of the modern world. In a small school attached to the local Catholic church in the Bronx, the avuncular priest Father Brendan Flynn (played by Hoffman) sermonizes about his own doubts writ large, and he sees this lack of certainty as a promising opportunity for reflection and growth. While Flynn sermonizes, Sister Aloysius Beauvier (played by Meryl Streep) dispatches her duties as disciplinarian with uncommon zeal. She is also disquieted by Father Flynn’s comfort with doubt, as she prefers the moral certainties that her faith provides.
When an impressionable young nun named Sister James (played by Amy Adams) notices that the first black pupil at the school returns from a private meeting with Father Flynn smelling of the faint whiff of alcohol, she reports the incident to Sister Aloysius. The suggestion of impropriety, refracted through the prism of Sister Aloysius’ unshakeable sense of certainty, is sufficient to warrant a crusade against Father Flynn for the charge of child molestation. The true nature of the meeting between Flynn and Miller is contested throughout the rest of the story, both by Flynn and by Beauvier. However, it’s not the facts of the case that move the plot forward; rather, it’s the means by which the characters make judgments about, and pursue, one another.
The ambiguities in Shanley’s script provide ample grounds for speculation about whether Father Flynn is in fact guilty of foul-play. Hoffman wields the role expertly: it’s a rare thing that a character alleged to have committed sexual misconduct with a minor (under circumstances in which the audience really doesn’t know either way) could elicit not only sympathy from the audience, but even the sense that he is being slanderously persecuted by Sister Aloysius. Hoffman always had an amazing capacity to glide convincingly on screen between a comforting demeanor to a petrifying rage with little warning, and the combination brings out the desperation in Flynn’s predicament.
Streep, too, is utterly mesmerizing. While her character is wholly unsympathetic, even until the startling concluding scene in the film, she remains believable throughout. When juxtaposed with Flynn’s desperate rage, the sanctimony of Streep’s Aloysius becomes all the more terrifying. Other performances are similarly superb, including Amy Adams’ Sister James and Viola Davis as the mother of the victimized child, but this really is Hoffman and Streep’s show.
I’ve written before about the challenges of converting a stage script into a film (for example, see my review of The History Boys), and Doubt certainly falls into the trap. To people disinclined from stage-to-screen adaptations, the periodic drops in momentum as the film progresses might be too dissatisfying. However, Shanley pays as much attention to the details in those scenes with a slower pace as in the enthralling, all-cylinders-firing battles of wits. This is clearly a labor of love for Shanley, and the final product is stupendous.
Trivia time again, RBC. Let’s hear about your favorite Hoffman performance.