From the opening moments of playwright-turned-screenwriter John Patrick Shanley‘s Doubt to its powerful conclusion, uncertainty clouds every frame, in which two nuns, a priest, and the mother of a young boy are forced to confront their core beliefs as they struggle with judgment, conviction and doubt. In the battle of wills that ensues, the story raises probing questions about the challenges of navigating a world increasingly confronted by sweeping changes and moral dilemmas. It was the very word itself – doubt – that first inspired Shanley to write what would become one of the most acclaimed plays of the last decade. The play was given its low-key premiere in the autumn of 2004, and was quickly swept onto Broadway on receipt of an avalanche of rave reviews. It opened at the Walter Kerr Theater in 2005 and remained there for a total of 550 performances, which eventually led to a lengthy world tour and the winning of a Pulitzer Prize. In the wake of the play‘s international success, Shanley came to believe that Doubt, with its ability to provoke and move audiences around the world, could inevitably do the same in cinemas. “There was this mask of certainty in our society that I saw hardening to the point that it was developing a crack – and that crack was doubt,” Shanley explains.
Shanley wanted to apply the dilemma to a parish priest accused of taking advantage of a member of his flock, and decided to set the story’s battleground issues of principle and compassion in a religious school, a place similar to his own childhood education in a Catholic school in the Bronx. Drawing further on his memories, Shanley set the clash between Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep) and Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) against the volatile atmosphere of 1964, just after the Kennedy assassination and on the cusp of the civil rights movement of the late 1960s – a pivotal time where people were going from complete faith in establishments and hierarchies, to questioning those same establishments. It was also a time of sweeping changes for the Catholic Church with the establishment of Vatican II by Pope John XXIII in 1962 which ushered in a series of reforms designed to make the church more modern, more diverse and more accessible to a changing laity. Adapting plays to screen is a notoriously difficult task, but Shanley manages the job with great skill which renders the finished product with almost as much power as the stage play. Well, he did have the talents of Hoffman and Streep to call on – as well as an electric Amy Adams in the role of young nun Sister James. With every scene packed full of nuance, the main theme of Doubt turns upon an incident that may or may not have happened – did the priest molest a 12-year old boy?
Streep excels as the nun from all our nightmares – the cold-eyed and unrelenting guardian of old fashioned beliefs firmly mired in the past with no intention of relaxing such an attitude just because times are changing. The fact that she thinks Frosty The Snowman celebrates witchcraft and should be banned from the airwaves pretty much sums up her character. When she takes it upon herself to question the likeable Father Flynn, and enlists the aid of Sister James in this effort, she sets up a series of confrontations about faith, honesty and innocence that lead the plot to its inexorable conclusion. As two of the silver screen’s most talented actors, Streep and Hoffman relish the wordplay and menace embedded in every line of Shanley’s excellent screenplay – ably backed up by Adams. For what it’s worth, Adams was robbed of the Best Supporting Actress Oscar by the overrated performance of the winner, Penelope Cruz, in Vicky Christina Barcelona. Doubt is a wonderful creation – an absorbing entertainment that poses some uncomfortable and lingering questions. It may be set in 1964, but the issues it tackles are just as relevant today.