Film review – Doubt (2008)

Doubt is an adaptation of the award winning play Doubt: A Parable. Set in a Bronx Catholic school in the mid 1960s, Doubt explores the conflict between Sister Aloysius Beauvier, the conservative and authoritarian principal of the school, and Father Brendan Flynn, a new progressive priest who Sister Aloysius accuses of having sexual relationships with the school’s first black student. Doubt is an exploration of faith, casting judgement, suspicion, and of course, doubt. The audience is never too sure if Flynn is actually guilty or what is motivating Sister Aloysius to go after him. Unfortunately what makes powerful drama on stage does not automatically translate to cinema.

The original play’s author, John Patrick Shanley, also wrote the script for the film and directed it. Shanley is an experienced writer for stage and screen but his lack of directing experience perhaps explains why Doubt does not feel like it has made the transition from stage to screen all that well. The film is structured too much like a play and both Philip Seymour Hoffman as Father Flynn and Meryl Streep as Sister Aloysius act in highly emotive manner that is better suited to the stage.

Rising star Amy Adams (Enchanted) does a little better as Sister James, the naïve younger nun who acts as the audience’s point of identification throughout the film, torn between her loyalties and never sure what to think. However, the real highlight of the film is Viola Davis (Nights in Rodanthe) as the mother of the boy at the centre of the storm. Davis is only in one scene but she gives a moving and strong performance.

Ron Howard’s recent film Frost/Nixon, which was based on a play that consisted largely of interviews, demonstrated how a stage play can be successfully adapted for the screen. There is an intriguing and powerful script at the core of Doubt but it fails to adequately resonate on screen. 

© Thomas Caldwell, 2009
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4 Responses to Film review – Doubt (2008)

  1. Kat says:

    I was beginning to think that I was the only person in the universe that Doubt did not quite hit the mark for. I saw it with about 8 other people who were all raving about it, and heard similar things from other friends. I’m afraid something about it just didn’t pack a punch the way I would have expected a film with such subject matter to.

  2. It’s the kind of film that will get praised because it ticks all the boxes in terms of what people feel a worthy film should be. But it really has been poorly adapted and it is poorly directed.

    A bad sign for me was the fact that I stopped caring about whether Father Flynn was guilty or not.

  3. Kat says:

    That is indeed not the best sign! I was thinking 4 stars at the time but now I have to admit I am thinking 3.5 in retrospect. It just didn’t make me feel a whole lot. This off the back of Frost/Nixon which, whilst and entierly different film, made me feel and react the way a great film should. Puts is all into perspective really.

  4. Frost/Nixon is certainly a far better film.