No cheap shots in clergy abuse drama


Doubt: 104 minutes. Rated: M. Director: John Patrick Shanley. Starring: Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams

Doubt, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy AdamsIn the world of cinema, religious figures can make for easy targets. At times, they are caricatured as overly pious, seemingly too attuned to their God to keep touch with the humanity or the changing times around them. Often, they are the rats in the ranks, whose piety is a veil for their own corruptness, self-interest, or dark and damaging secrets.

In an age where distrust of religious institutions runs high, and where that distrust is due in no small part to revelations of child abuse perpetrated by members of the clergy, portrayals of priests can tend to lean towards the weak or villainous.

Doubt deals with the subject of clergy child abuse, though not in the way you might expect. Set in a Catholic school in the Bronx in 1964, it's not concerned with caricature and cliché, far less with polemic (if that's what you're after, try the 2007 documentary Deliver Us From Evil), but rather is a finely wrought, character-driven drama where ambiguities abound and truth remains elusive.

Hoffman is Father Brendan Flynn, a charismatic, approachable priest, who is in charge of the local parish. He's the foil to Streep's hard-nosed headmistress, Sister Aloysius, who is cynical about Father Flynn's progressive ways.

Father Flynn has taken a particular interest in Donald Miller (Joseph Foster), a young African-American student and altar boy, who is somewhat ostracised in the all-white student body. They are close — perhaps too close, in the bright but naïve eyes of young nun and schoolteacher, Sister James (Adams), who immediately brings her concerns to Sister Aloysius.

On the slimmest of pretexts, fuelled by her own dubious and malicious instincts — and, to be fair, concern for the alleged victim — Sister Aloysius launches a vendetta against Father Flynn, convinced of his guilt, and determined to have him removed at all costs.

Shanley's adaptation of his own Pulitzer Prize-winning play is an intriguing study of guilt and deceit. It is bracketed by monologues about doubt. The former takes the shape of a homily; the latter, an admission of guilt, though by whom I won't say.

But the most insidious 'doubt' that pervades the film relates to the kinds of images and feelings that can spring to mind when considering the portrayal of religious authorities in film or media. The unsettling events of the plot play in to the doubts of the film's characters. These same events interrogate the audience's doubts.  

So is Flynn guilty or not? Needless to say, the film leaves room for, well, doubt. But one of its most potent conclusions is that when it comes to fanning fears regarding the wellbeing of children, doubt can do as much damage as fact. A sermon presented by Father Flynn on the irretrievability of gossip drives this point home in vivid fashion.

Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street. His articles and reviews have been published by The Age, Inside Film, the Brisbane Courier Mail and The Big Issue.


Topic tags: Doubt, John Patrick Shanley.Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams



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Existing comments

The head of the Australian National University Library made a very telling comment recently.

He said that fiction and reality are merging, that it was getting harder to distinguish what is really true. He was making a philosophical comment on what he had deduced from reading the works of a generation of students.
Films like the one being reviewed may just authenticate this perceived tendency.

How do we combat such a 'worm' invasion of human nature.
Deconstructionism, relativism have had a very deep impact.

Fr Mick Mac Andrew Bombala-Delegate NSW | 22 January 2009  

I read somewhere that Shanley told his principal actors who was the "guilty" person in the story, so that this information would inform their performance. Unable to read such subtleties, my wife and I came out confused, just as Shanley intended.

A little aside: on a recent long haul flight, I fell happily asleep watching The Dark Knight. Yesterday, there was a long queue for that film and only half a dozen to see Doubt. What does that say, I wonder?

At any rate, Hoffman has to be a shoo-in for an Oscar.

Frank | 22 January 2009  

Frank O'Shea says: 'Yesterday, there was a long queue for [The Dark Knight] and only half a dozen to see Doubt. What does that say, I wonder?'

It says that while Doubt may be good, The Dark Knight is bloody good (though of course there's no accounting for taste), and happens to have the advantage of being a blockbuster with broad appeal, rather than an artsy, Oscar-bait drama.

'At any rate, Hoffman has to be a shoo-in for an Oscar.' Hoffman was good. But Heath Ledger beat him to the Golden Globe and will nab the Oscar too.

Whether or not you like superhero movies, Ledger's turn as the Joker in The Dark Knight (a very intelligent, character-driven superhero movie) was superb.

Combine this with the huge 'sentimental' vote Ledger has in his favour due to his untimely death last year, and the fact that it was Hoffman (for Capote) who beat Ledger the last time he should have won it (for Brokeback Mountain) ... the Oscar is Ledger's.

Fancy a wager, Frank? ;)

Charles Boy | 22 January 2009  

This article about Doubt is worth reading.

Shane Kennedy | 26 January 2009  

This film is the real life script for several men I know and many others who were groomed and raped by a charismatic, approachable, progressive priest who worked in parishes and schools. The bishops just shifted him around when things got a bit hot. Probably promotions. Parents and children were not listened to. So imagine the pain for those people now. Thank goodness for the Sister Aloysius's of this world - courageous people who take on the spineless authorities in the church.

jo dallimore | 06 February 2009  

Yes, a brilliant film - I know each character so well. The sense of doubt and helplessness and betrayal and the hope born of courageous anger and still more doubt. Five of us watched the movie, two couples, elders and a young man alone, not much older than I was when a complex and flawed priest groomed me took me to the place as he had done so often and then in the last moments spared me from the final rape that I now know befell my friends. And that young man left silent alone and I saw in him a look I know and have seen too many times. And in that that unexpected ending I know why this subject must continue to be explored - so that there can be a reaching out to comfort those alone in that great isolated and isolating pain. There are still too many alone.

John Dallimore | 13 February 2009  

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