The Oscars loom so everything is very Important right now, and everyone is Acting lots and lots. A film adapted from a play about churchy folk and child fiddling seems to tick many Oscar boxes, which often suggests a film is about to be either long, depressing, self indulgent, serious or overinflated nonsense. Amazingly Doubt trots over all such preconceptions and emerges fresh, riveting, amusing and thoroughly enjoyable.
Bringing in a whopping 4 actor-related Oscar noms, Doubt could have been a blank backdrop allowing people to act away while sacrificing a bit of the entertainment factor (see Revolutionary Road…) But its cast powerfully drive the story, a compelling tale of “who dunnit”, or rather “did he dunnit…” when a priest is suspected of messing with an altar boy’s holy vestibule.
Chief investigator is headmistress nun Meryl Streep (up for best actress) who cuts a terrifying figure of authority, channelling her Devil Wears Prada performance into something harsher yet warmer at the same time. Her character delivers the majority of the laughs, her crushing bluntness and devout determination to prove she is right being the central spike to the tale. It’s a perfect role for her to play, but she doesn’t completely steal the limelight. Ever brilliant Philip Seymour Hoffman (up for best actor) plays the priest in the spotlight, superbly mixing creepy (he definitely did it…) with sympathetic distress (he definitely didn’t do it…) The myriad of emotions crossing his large face could indicate any of the two outcomes, and you’ll have as much fun as Streep’s character in trying to decide if he’s telling the truth. Well, as much fun as you can have in investigating such dodgy things.
Taking up the supporting reigns is angel-faced Amy Adams (up for best supporting actress) whose naivety is beautiful, particularly when it cracks, and Viola Davis (also up for best supporting) playing the boy in question’s mother, and probably displaying the best bit of acting snot I have ever seen.
Though adapted from the stage, Doubt sidesteps the usual pitfalls (no one is trying to project across the stalls) but original playwright John Patrick Shanley (nommed for best screenplay) steps up to adapt and direct and perhaps takes some of his stage techniques a little too far. The inclusion of visual analogies is at times so blatant he may as well have had a character carry a load of heavy bags, then exclaim “oh woe is me, I have so much emotional baggage”. The crazy weather and unreliable light bulbs cut into the drama just a little too much, detracting from the already formidable subject matter which is filled with enough subtext to not need any more slathered on the screen.
Still, quibbles aside this was a fully enjoyable film, with superb performances and a simple yet completely effective plot. Points for mashing entertainment with potent drama, and extra points for letting me watch Streep and Hoffman size each other up. Doubt slinks in with a CF2, the first of the year. And check it out – I didn’t even make one single doubt-related pun. But I did mention a child’s holy vestibule. I’m not sure which is worse.