Doubt (2008) is one of the first films we saw the legendary Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams do their thing.
Adapted from John Patrick Shanley’s 2004 play Doubt: A Parable, it’s a fine film with an excellent ensemble cast headed by Meryl Streep. Let’s get doubtful about it!
Doubt is All About the Doubts
Directed by John Patrick Shanley, Doubt is set in 1964 in a New York Catholic church.
Father Brendan Flynn (Hoffman) opens the film with a sermon about doubt and the nature of faith. He’s charismatic and personable, with an open personality aimed at an amicable relationship with the young students.
That clashes badly with Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Streep) and her world view. In him, she senses danger and change.
Sister Beauvier is the strict and domineering principal of the parish.
Whether by natural instinct or intent to ruin Father Flynn, she views what she considers suspicious behaviour from him. That’s after she sees a schoolboy, Donald Miller, move away from Father Flynn in the playground.
Father Flynn appears to have a special bond with the child and is being fatherly, as the child is the only African-American student at the school.
Sister Beauvier tells her sisters to be on their guard and lookout for suspicious behaviour.
One of these is the naïve and nervous Sister James (Adams), who smells alcohol on Father Flynn’s breath and sees an unusual incident between him and Miller, when the former places an undershirt into Donald’s locker.
She reports these concerns to Sister Beauvier, setting up the course of the film ahead. As she really goes off on one, convinced Flynn is up to no good.
Sister Beauvier’s domineering “certainty” of Flynn’s wrongdoing starts to rile him up, which triggers ongoing sparring between the two.
And it becomes a power struggle, where the potential real issue is kind of ignored as Sister Beauvier’s ulterior motive starts to dominate proceedings.
Whether Father Flynn is guilty or not, she’s taken a dislike to him and wants him gone from the parish. It’s up for him to decide how to respond to that threat.
Oscar-bait Doubt may well be, but the real joy of the film is watching the extreme skill of Streep and Hoffman.
Both incredible at their job, the film is all about the warring ways of their flawed, but dominant, characters.
But Doubt is also the first time we came across the fabulously talented Amy Adams. Frankly, we’ve had a crush on her ever since thanks to this film.
And she’s quite brilliant in the supporting role as Sister James, playing a mousey lady with an innocent streak a mile wide.
Viola Davis also has a memorable scene as Donald Miller’s mother, which really bowled us over when we first saw it.
It’s this performance that put Davis on the Hollywood map, she’s had a pretty epic career since then (to put it mildly).
One of the things Doubt does very well is make it unclear the real nature of what’s going on.
We never do find out if Father Flynn is responsible for what Sister Beauvier is so certain off.
And that underlying uncertainty is what appears to take its toll on her, as in the closing scene she tearfully admits to Sister James she has doubts.
Although it’s unclear if she means about Father Flynn (who’s transferred to a new parish), or in her standing towards religion.
Terrific film, then, if a little stagey.
You can tell it was a play before being adapted, although the film setting adds extra depth to the nature of the themes.
And it is an acting fest. Doubt obviously had ambitions to do well at the Oscars and Hoffman and Streep are there to act the living daylights out of their roles. Both are quite brilliant.
As a result, Doubt was nominated for five Oscars. But it didn’t win any.
The stagyness of the production shouldn’t diminish its worth, though, 14 years on from 2008. As it’s another indicator of the loss Philip Seymour Hoffman was in 2014, just six years after the film launched.
It’s well worth revisiting to see masters of their craft at work.
Doubt’s Film Production
Filming began in December 2007 and was filmed in the Bronx of New York. Various Catholic Schools were used for real locations.
So that does add a genuine New York vibe to proceedings.
Whilst Streep and Hoffman were set for the roles, the latter had to lobby to ensure Amy Adams got the Sister James role. He threatened to leave the project unless she was included.
Initially the role was offered to Natalie Portman, but she turned it down. That opened the door for Mz. Adams.
Quite a brave step from Hoffman, as he hadn’t quite hit the peak of his fame. A year later, he lent his voice talents to the brilliant independent Australian production Mary and Max (2009).
Another relative unknown at the time was Viola Davis.
She’s only in two scenes, but she’s bloody outstanding! This earned her an Oscar nomination and kick started her film career proper.
Doubt isn’t a popcorn fodder film.
But its ensemble cast was a big enough draw to get people into the cinema. Who doesn’t want to see a Streep and Hoffman production!?
Doubt received a $20 million budget and went on to make back $50.9 million. A hit which, considering the subject matter, is impressive.
But in a storied career, it probably won’t be included as one of Streep’s best films. The Deer Hunter (1978), Silkwood (1983), Sophie’s Choice (1982), and the like will no doubt bag that.
But we think she did a terrific job, adding lots of defining little touches to her character to make her at once annoyingly draconian, but impressive.
Streep and Adams went on to work together again shortly after in Julie & Julia (2009), a great little film we’ll perhaps review soon. But we have our doubts about that…