"In cooking, as in all the arts, simplicity is a sign of perfection." - Curnonsky

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Movie Review: Doubt

Doubt is a tense, thought-provoking and incredibly well-written play, and it must be difficult to adapt such a dense play for the big screen. With a play there's the understanding that we're somewhat confined in terms of location and there's often a lot of talking and emoting. The film adaptation of Doubt is pretty much entirely talking and emoting. It's not that that's a bad thing, per se, it's just that it requires a bit more wrangling of the ol' attention span than most movies require. In some ways, I'm not completely sure why it was adapted for the big screen, except to cement in cinematic history these exceptional performances by some of today's Hollywood giants.

There's nothing visually interesting about it (at all), though surely the visuals aren't the focus here. The exploration of what's moral and good, which sin is greater than another sin, and the back-and-forth dance of trust and suspicion — these are central to the story that Doubt attempts to tell. But it is, well, a lot of talking. It's often absorbing because these actors so expertly guide us through the narrative, but it might take a particularly patient modern-day moviegoer to enjoy this movie.

The story takes place in a Bronx Catholic school in 1964 where the school's stern, unyielding principal, Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep) becomes suspicious of the parish priest, the likable Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman), when he takes a particular shine to one boy: The school's first black student, Donald Miller (Joseph Foster). Father Flynn insists that he is merely trying to help a lonely, isolated boy, but Sister Aloysius is convinced that the nature of this relationship is inappropriate. The sweet, young nun Sister James (Amy Adams) is pulled into the conflict and doesn't know who to believe: Her kind and gentle-seeming priest or this steely nun who is utterly certain (despite a lack of hard evidence) of wrongdoing. The audience is basically in Sister James's shoes, wanting to believe the best about this seemingly good-hearted priest, but worried that if there is something going on and it goes ignored then this boy will be further harmed.
The performances are top-notch, and all the awards buzz was completely deserved. Restricted by clothing and (for the women) modest head-covering bonnets, as well as a nearly action-free script, it's up to the actors and their facial expressions, vocal intonation, and slight changes in body language to convey the emotion within this story. Lesser actors would have brought down the entire thing, but as it is, Streep, Hoffman, Adams and Viola Davis (who plays Donald's mother) manage to make this heavy, talky script loom more powerfully before us than I ever thought possible. They each have such tremendous presence, emitting a heat that we can practically feel in the audience. However, all in all it feels like watching a play, so if you aren't exactly a fan of plays, this may not be the movie for you.

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