Monday, February 16, 2009

DOUBT: Power-Packed Performances

DOUBT (drama)
Cast: Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman (pictured below), Amy Adams, Viola Davis and Joseph Foster II
Director: John Patrick Shanley, based on his play
Time: 104 mins
Rating: * * * 1/2

PREAMBLE: Undoubtedly, this must be the movie with the most power-packed performances of 2008. Why, it is the only movie that has its main cast nominated for FOUR acting Oscars in the 81st Academy Awards. Lead star Meryl Streep has been tapped for Best Actress; Philip Seymour Hoffman is vying for Best Supporting Actor, while Amy Adams and Viola Davis are nominated for Best Supporting Actress.

Still, top grade performances are not the only selling point for this John Patrick Shanley movie based on his Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winning play of the same title. Doubt, the movie, takes us to The Bronx of 1964 at a time when there was no such thing as 'political correctness' and homosexual acts in schools are not only taboo, but must be flushed out and exposed. It is also a story of Doubt getting into direct conflict with Certainty. Those seeking clear answers to difficult questions in the plot will not find them here.

: At the centre of this movie is Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Streep), the principal of the St Nicholas Church School who seems to suspect sin and wrongdoing everywhere. Thus when she is approached by the sweet, young Sister James (Adams) about her suspicions of misconduct between the congenial Father Flynn (Hoffman) and her only black student, Donald Miller (Joseph Foster II), the stern nun leaves no stone unturned in probing into the alleged incident.

However, as Sister Aloysius starts her campaign against the Irish priest, certain thoughts spring to our minds: Is her dislike for Flynn due to the fact that he uses ballpoint pens (instead of conventional fountain pens) and takes three cubes of sugar in his tea? Or is it because she has seen Flynn putting his hand on Donald's shoulder while the boys are queueing up for classes?
Things come to a head when Donald's mother (Viola Davis) is called to the principal's office to be informed about an incident involving Flynn and her son who is an altar boy...

HITS & MISSES: The movie, directed by Shanley himself, tends to be more verbal than visual, given the conceit of the play. Streep is particularly engrossing when she is doing a 'demolition job' on some poor student or nun, and her Sister Aloysius is perched on such a high moral ground that she appears a monster.

Adams is just the opposite with her bubbly, naive personality while Hoffman exudes compassion and just enough uncertainty to make us wonder if he is indeed guilty. (I don't foresee an Oscar for Streep and Adams, while Hoffman has a tough job going against the late Heath Ledger who is everybody's favourite).

The most impressive performance comes from Viola Davis (pic, right) who only has a couple of scenes as a troubled mother forced to reveal unpleasant views about her own son. This 10-minute sequence is so powerful and memorable that it should constitute a huge plus for her career, even if it does not win her an Oscar!
If writer-director Shanley is more comfortable with dialogue scenes, he is no slouch in the visuals department. He can also be very imaginative - as in the scene of flying feathers during Father Flynn's sermon about spreading rumours. The sets and technical aspects are above average and the editing for this 104-minute film is crisp.

Doubt is no blockbuster but it is an intellectually and emotionally satisfying experience.


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