Starring: Starring Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour and Amy Adams. Written and directed by John Patrick Shanley
104 mins
Rating: Rated M (mature themes)

In 2005 John Patrick Shanley won a Pulitzer Prize, the Drama Desk Award and a Tony Award for his Broadway play, “Doubt”. It has been staged in most Australian capital cities since then.

Set as the Second Vatican Council is well underway in 1964, the reforming and charismatic priest, Father Brendan Flynn (Seymour Hoffman) arrives at St. Nicholas Parish in the Bronx. The winds of change are blowing.

The local Catholic School is administered by the Daughters of Charity of St Joseph, who were founded by Elizabeth Ann Seton in 1809. This was the USA’s first indigenous religious congregation for women. Like the French “aeroplane nuns” upon which St Elizabeth modelled her Congregation, the DC’s, as they are affectionately known, had distinctive headgear - a tight fitting white bonnet with a large black bonnet over it.

Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Streep) runs the school and the convent with an iron-glove. The pupils are terrified of her. So are the nuns. The priests probably are too. But Sr Aloysius is at first cautious and then anxious about the new go-ahead Curate. The Principal wants the Church, her school and the world to stay the way it is. She keeps a careful eye on the reforming Fr Flynn.

When the school accepts its first black student, Donald Miller (Joseph Foster), he is given into Sister James’s class (Adams). Sr James is a junior professed sister, anxious to impress Sr Aloysius. She is as kindly and good as her Superior is severe. When she shares with Sister Aloysius that she is worried that Father Flynn is paying too much personal attention to Donald, Sister Aloysius is galvanized to begin a crusade to both unearth the truth and expunge Flynn from the school and the parish.

Without a shred of proof except her moral certainty, Sister Aloysius locks into a battle of wills with Father Flynn, a battle that threatens to tear apart the local Catholic community with devastating consequences.

Of all the television drams and films made about the sexual abuse of children by Catholic clergy, this is the best one yet. Even though the direction is a little too static, Doubt is a study in how a play can be successfully adapted to the screen (it does not always work). It is also a masterclass in acting. Seymour Hoffman, Streep, Adams and Viola Davis, who plays Donald’s mother, have already picked up nominations for the major acting awards in the USA. On their own, the scenes between Streep and Seymour Hoffman are worth the price of admission. The range of emotions these two can convincingly explore in ten minutes of screen time is mesmerising.

Although there are no scenes of any inappropriate or criminal behaviour by anyone, there are some people who would not choose not to see a film on this topic. That would be a shame in this instance. John Patrick Shanley has presented one of the most morally complex and ethically interesting texts I can ever remember on the screen.

On one level Sr Aloysius is a noble figure, a crusader for the rights of the poor. She will let nothing stand in her way in exposing anyone she suspects of abusing children. That she is so unable to see that her own treatment of the very children she defends is emotionally abusive makes her situation all the more desperate.

Aloysius’ problem is not that she cares for kids. It is that she has become a self appointed vigilante, and that her free floating neurosis in regard to change, order, control and tradition have found expression in a more socially acceptable vendetta against the man who embodies all that she fears and loathes. With righteous indignation, her obsession will only be vanquished when she destroys Fr Flynn. And if she is wrong then that would be one unfortunate casualty in the necessary war against abuse and sin and reform. 

Take as an example these interchanges between them:

“I can fight you.

You will lose.”

“You haven’t the slightest proof of anything!
But I have my certainty.” 

“Where is your compassion?
Nowhere you can get at it.”

Not that Fr Flynn is off the hook. Shanley is masterful in giving us a man who has a history. He may be the subject of a contemporary Salem witch hunt, but we intuit enough to know that he is not just a victim here. He can be as manipulative and calculating as his opposing force. We come to see why he says in his opening sermon, “Doubt can be a bond as powerful and sustaining as certainty.” For while he may want the winds of change, he cannot foresee the hurricane that will soon be threatening his 1964 clericalism, sexism and extremely poor judgment. He is deeply flawed too.  

Into this mix comes the sweet and vulnerable Sr James. She is based on one of the Daughters of Charity who taught Shanley at St. Anthony’s School in the Bronx in the 1950’s. By the time he wrote the play in 2003 he thought she was dead. After the play became a hit he discovered that Sister Peggy McEntee DC was well and truly alive. She became a consultant to Doubt, and her former pupil dedicates this film to her.

Sr James is caught between the clash of the titans and, understandably, has divided loyalties. She wants to keep her tyrannical Superior happy, but she has real doubts that the likeable Fr Flynn has done anything criminal. But what if she is wrong? How would she live with herself? Through a brilliant use of characterisation, Sr James embodies the position of the audience. She and we end up empathising with everyone.

Around this unholy trinity of characters are weaved issues of whether temptation is sin, about culpability and how there are various grades of sinfulness, serious or otherwise. The refreshing note here is that these are not explored didactically, but emerge naturally and unobtrusively from the characters.

There are some distracting things that look like mistakes for 1964. Stoles were not worn on the outside of a chasuble at this time, and Father’s very modern Lenten vestments, while possible at this time, peg him as a very trendy member of the French liturgical movement. It was a long way from Paris to the Bronx in 1964. Mind you Fr Flynn prays from an English translation of the breviary in a couple of the shots. Vernacular versions of the Breviary were largely unheard of then.

In a church the size of St Nicholas’ there would have been a pulpit from which the sermon was delivered, not a lectern at the altar rails. And it would have been very unusual in a Catholic Church to stand and sing a hymn straight after the sermon.

Unless the Daughters of Charity had a very different tradition, Religious Sisters were never dispersed throughout the congregation at Sunday Mass, walking around the aisles correcting children as they went. Their students would have sat with their parents on Sunday, and the nuns sat together in the front pews.

Sr James is junior professed and so in her Order’s tradition she may not yet have received a profession ring, but Sr Aloysius has to be in final vows to be a Superior, but she is a ring-less Bride of Christ too. This is noticeable because the Sisters are outside in winter without gloves, which would have been an offense against the Rule, or at least against common sense. 

These Sisters may have been different in other ways too, because, tragically, most younger sisters in most Orders would never have been allowed to go and see their sick brothers during term time, or any other time for that matter.  

The nuns eat in full glare of the school children at one end of the school cafeteria. Until 1968 most people wondered if Nuns ate at all. Some Nuns had to eat behind umbrellas while supervising their school’s picnic.

Composer Howard Shore thought “Ubi Caritas” by Jacques Berthier, of Taize fame, was perfect for an important scene. The problem is the piece was not written until 1975.

But these are quibbles in relation to all the things Shanley gets right. The names are especially pleasing.

St Nicholas of Lincopen is famous for inaugurating gift giving to poor children in 1125. St Brendan was a 6th century Irish Monk, famous for his voyages. He is patron saint for those on the move, which is just about perfect for Fr Flynn.  St Aloysius Gonzaga was a 16th Century Jesuit who is Patron Saint of youth and famous for saying, “I am a piece of twisted iron; I entered religion to get twisted straight”, which, when applied to his namesake in this film, we see she has a way to go. And even the embattled Sister James is well named, given that Christian tradition holds that her patron was clubbed to death in Jerusalem in 62 A.D. It is any wonder he is patron saint of pharmacists, dying people and hat makers. His bonneted namesake here is certainly battered and bruised by the end of this film.

Early on in Doubt we even have a close-up of the name of the intersection near the church and school. It is a coincidence that the action takes place on the corner of St Laurence and Madison Sts? I doubt it. Known as the patron saint of BBQs, at his martyrdom by roasting it is claimed that St Laurence said, “Turn me over I’m done this side!” The flames will soon be licking Fr Flynn. And President James Madison was the author of the Bill of Rights which enshrines both the right to freedom of speech and the right to the due process of the law. 

The only thing Doubt clarifies is that when it comes to true justice regarding child sexual abuse in the church, or any other serious issue, St Augustine in 5th Century was right when he said that “Hope has two lovely daughters, anger and courage: anger so that what cannot be, may not be; and courage, so that what must be, will be.”

The problem is in backing up a hunch with certainty and then knowing to whom, when and upon what matters we can give the benefit of the doubt.

Walt Disney Studios   Out 15 January

Fr Richard Leonard SJ is the director of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.

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