Directed by John Patrick Shanley based on his own Tony and Pulitzer Award winning Broadway play, Doubt’s stage drama roots are not so much evident in its single location and setting – a Catholic school in the Bronx in 1964 – as in the majority of the rather talky drama being played out by a relatively small central cast and focussed on a clear central theme – the question of doubt, evidently – that is examined in depth from a number of angles. If the limitations imposed on the film by the stage setting of original play are overcome exceptionally well, the handling of the difficult questions that the drama broaches is rather less convincing.
On a technical, structural and formal viewpoint, the film can’t really be faulted, even if some of the “voice of God” moments in exploding lightbulbs and thunderstorms are a little creaky and overstated. Director Shanley and cinematographer Roger Deakins manage to open the drama out well however through good location shooting in the authentic surroundings of St. Nicholas’ Catholic Academy, while the exceptional casting of Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams make light work of the script, working off each other well and holding the viewer through the confrontations that arise when suspicion falls on the Catholic priest Father Flynn of having “inappropriate relations” with a young African-American boy that he has taken into his care for special attention.
The mechanics of the theme and how they are played out are also finely-tuned from an academic viewpoint, Shanley finding an appropriate arena to examine the nature of the subject. Where better to examine doubt from within the area of absolute faith and complete trust in the infallibility of the Catholic dogma - one that proves to be not so unshakeable when confronted with such a charge? Setting the film moreover in the 1960s proves not to be a mere period detail, but one directly relevant to the subject, with the 1962 Vatican Council setting out an agenda for modernisation and clarification on subjects relevant to the lives of its congregation. The confrontation between the traditional ways of distance, ruling by fear and threats of dire consequences for sinners moving towards a more inclusive approach sympathetic towards the real day-to-day concerns of parishioners is embodied in the characters of the old-school principal Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep) and in the more open and down-to-earth Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman).
Sister Aloysius’s mistrust of this new, open approach removes the unquestionable certainties that she could previously rely on, and it’s this mistrust that initially sets her suspicions up against the reforming priest. She asks the nuns in her charge to keep an eye out for anything strange about the Father Flynn’s behaviour, and when young history teacher Sister James (Amy Adams) notices one of the boys in her class, Donald Miller (Joseph Foster), St. Nicholas’ first young African-American student, behaving strangely after visiting the priest, she raises her fears with her superior.
The question of doubt remains uppermost in this scenario. Sister James becomes unsure of whether her suspicions were implanted by Sister Aloysius, causing her to misinterpret a perfectly innocent situation, or at least one that is not what it appears to be on the surface. Sister Aloysius may be less conflicted, directly confronting the priest with the charges, but without any proof and a plausible explanation provided by Father Flynn, she has to question how far she can take her suspicions, and whether “stepping away from God” is justified if it leads her to the truth. It’s for Father Flynn however that the question of doubt about his actions is evidently more relevant, and the film successfully manages to transfer the question of doubt about whether he abuses boys or not onto the viewer for the majority of the film.
Yet, something still isn’t right. The script isn’t particularly strong in raising moral questions or indeed finding answers to them, casting out a few sermons and parables by the priest that really don’t get to the heart of the matter. “There are no simple truths”, the advertising tagline for the film states, but there is one issue where there really should be no room for doubt and it’s there that the film attempts to fudge the issue by its choice of alleged victim, suggesting – somewhat unpardonably and improbably from the viewpoint of the boy’s mother (Viola Davis) – that even if the charge against Father Flynn could be proved, that there are mitigating or at least complicating factors on account of her son’s nature, his problems at home and his colour. This doesn’t wash at all, creating rather a core of doubt within the viewer about just what point the film is trying to make, whether it is actually concerned with relevant issues or whether the situation has been contrived to fit and extend its theme.
Rather like another recent film, I’ve Loved You So Long, Doubt then presents a challenging issue, but undermines it by shifting its sights away from the relevant concerns it has raised towards finding a convenient way out. While this might indeed be in keeping with the Catholic Church’s traditional handling of the problem, there’s no such excuse for the film’s sidestepping around the issue. And unfortunately, this appalling ambivalence eats its way into the characterisation and performances (no matter how good the actors are, one can almost see them wilt as they struggle more with inconsistent and unlikely characterisation than with any inner doubts their characters might have) to the extent that some viewers are likely to find their motivations and actions unconvincing and the whole premise somewhat dubious.