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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

 
DOUBT
at Movie theaters nationwide

OLD-TIME RELIGION
By JESSICA BRANCH

  Meryl Streep

It sounds like the opening of a Borscht Belt joke-so a nun and a priest play cat-and-mouse-but in 2005, John Patrick Shanley's tale of the mind games played out between, yes, a nun and a priest over the nature of his relationship with a Bronx Catholic school's first African-American student took Broadway by storm. Taut yet twisting, the plot's examination of sexual and religious politics and the nature of love seemed as freshly torn-from-the-headlines and relevant as it would have in 1964, when the work was set, and the pivotal roles-Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Meryl Streep in the film), the stern principal determined to find out the truth at all costs and Father Brendan Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the affable forgiving priest-provided multiple fine actors the opportunity to pit their wits against one another-and shine.

The film's wintry, windswept Bronx landscapes visually open up the claustrophobic tension of the play, but that's not the most striking difference between the two works. While on stage, the suspenseful drama was a tug-of-war between the indefatigable, suspicious nun and the approachable, modern-leaning priest, Meryl Streep's Oscar-worthy performance skews that delicate balance. Even as strong an actor as Hoffman can't match her command of the camera, just as his genial, ambling priest can't outface her gimlet-eyed scrutiny. But it's not Sister Aloysius's stern judgments that the camera reveals in a way the stage couldn't quite, it's her flickers of kindness and even fleeting glimmers of humor. Streep offers a complicated, moving portrait of a real human being, not a scourge of God.

The other characters, however, don't get the same fleshing out: Hoffman's Father Flynn remains a flabby, genial cipher, and the wide-eyed Sister James (the earnest Amy Adams) seems simply fickle, rather than intellectually or emotionally swayed by the arguments for or against the two main combatants.

The upshot is that the film shifts much of the emphasis (and the doubt) away from the play's did-he/didn't-he dilemma into the murkier ethical questions of whether the boy's mother, Mrs. Miller (a moving Viola Davis) or the righteous nun knows what's best for him, and whether they are, as Mrs. Miller questions, ultimately on the same side or not. And while Sister Aloysius may not have as worthy an opponent in Father Flynn as she did in the drama, the film more effectively allows the woman's inner conflicts to take center stage.

 

 


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