April 8, 2009
John Patrick Shanley established himself as one of Hollywood’s premiere screenwriters when he won an Academy Award for his work on Moonstruck (1987). His much anticipated follow-up, The January Man (1989) was not as well-received, to put it mildly, and was a resounding commercial and critical flop. The success of his most recent film, Doubt (2008), proves that he’s still got the goods. Adapted from his own Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning play, Doubt features a fascinating battle of wills between two strong-willed individuals.
Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Streep) is the very strict principal of the Saint Nicholas Church School which she rules with an iron fist. In sharp contrast, Father Flynn (Hoffman) is very popular with his constituents, even inspiring one altar boy to go into the priesthood. Sister Aloysius resents Father Flynn’s popularity and looks for any opportunity to disgrace him.
She discovers a possible opening when one of the teachers, Sister James (Adams) tells her that Father Flynn has taken a special interest in one of the students – the only African American in a predominantly Irish-Italian neighbourhood. Sister Aloysius automatically assumes the worst and sees this as a way to create doubt and suspicion about the priest. She confronts him about a private meeting that he had with the boy and so begins a war of words between these two forces of nature.
Meryl Streep turns in yet another impressive performance as the tough-as-nails Sister Aloysius. She’s a humourless disciplinarian who perceives anyone that questions how she runs things as a threat. It’s to Streep’s credit that her character doesn’t come across as merely a bullying stereotype. Philip Seymour Hoffman is excellent as the priest in direct opposition to Streep’s nun. Father Flynn preaches compassion and understanding – things that Sister Aloysius sees as a weakness. He’s also progressively minded and Hoffman conveys a kindness that certainly makes one empathize with his character. Amy Adams plays the innocent Sister James who is caught between two conflicting ideologies. She has instigated this conflict based on what she saw and is then forced to deal with the ramifications that will possibly affect many people.
With Doubt, Shanley has crafted an absorbing drama that pits two high-caliber actors against each other and gives them fantastic dialogue to spout. He presents thought-provoking themes and wrestles with the notion of perception: who is telling the truth, Sister Aloysius or Father Flynn? The scenes between them are riveting as they bounce their conflicting viewpoints off each other and we are kept guessing as to who is right. Shanley doesn’t provide any easy, pat answers and instead leaves it up to the audience to make up their own minds.
“From Stage to Screen” takes a look at the genesis of the story. John Patrick Shanley talks about how he came up with it and the inspiration, which came from the real Sister James. Doubt started off as a play and Shanley talks about the challenges of adapting it into a film. Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams talk about what drew them to this project.
“The Cast of Doubt” features an Entertainment Weekly writer interviewing cast members Streep, Hoffman, Adams and Viola Davis. They talk about the experience of watching Doubt as a play and a film. They also discuss how audiences will interpret the film’s ending.
“Scoring Doubt” briefly examines Howard Shore’s work on the film’s score and how it informs what we are watching. Shanley had his own ideas about what he wanted it to sound like and then discussed with Shore his thoughts and the end result was a collaboration between the two.
“Sisters of Charity” takes a look at the nuns that acted as technical consultants and sources of information for Shanley and the cast. They share some of their knowledge about their daily schedule, their etiquette and how it has changed over the years.
Finally, there is an audio commentary by writer/director John Patrick Shanley. He points out that they shot in the same Bronx neighbourhood that he grew up in. He was an altar boy and offers some recollections of the rituals he performed in that capacity. Like one of the characters in the film, Shanley was thrown out of the altar boys for drinking wine. He speaks very eloquently and knowledgeably about the daily rituals and practices of the nun.