I didn’t watch Doubt in theaters, however watching the film on Blu-ray for the first time didn’t diminish the riveting effect of such powerful writing and acting representations for me. Doubt was a class in great filmmaking from beginning to end. The performances by Oscar winners Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman, as well as Amy Adams and Viola Davis, were resolute, determined and steadfast; part a story defined by the quest for truth and the power and fear of change.
Set in 1964 at St. Nicholas Church and School in the Bronx, with a nation still deeply scarred from the assassination of President John F. Kennedy the year prior, Father Brendan Flynn’s (Philip Seymour Hoffman) progressive views and charismatic presence have won him the respect and admiration of his congregation. At the parish school, principal Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Meryl Streep) keeps her students in line with old-fashioned fire and brimstone, along with healthy a dose of fear. When young Sister James (Amy Adams) shares with Sister Aloysius her concern that that Father Flynn has “taken an interest” in twelve-year-old Donald Miller (Joseph Foster), the school’s first African-American student, the older nun immediately launches an investigation that on the surface seems more like a smear campaign against the young priest and his newfangled ideas. Determined to protect every one of her charges, Sister Aloysius attempts to use the evidence she discovers to have Flynn removed from the school. John Patrick Shanley’s finely layered script takes audiences through a spectrum of emotions, asking if any decision is ever free from doubt.
Meryl Streep becomes Sister Beauvier, believably cold and menacing, with a glaze on her face that looked more like a chilled corpse than a warm and loving nun. She also adopted a convincing working class New York accent that backed up her school-of-hard-knocks superiority.
Philip Seymour Hoffman matches Streep’s presence and authority extremely well, as the likable Father Flynn. Flynn is engaging and powerful on the pulpit, and charismatic in everyday settings, but strong enough to stare down even the stark and thewy Aloysius. He’s unassuming and kind, yet there’s something just odd enough about him to suspect that something might not be right.
Amy Adams’ Sister James acts as the viewers eyes and ears, as she sees the incendiary situation from both sides. She’s forced to hear both Sister Beauvier’s and Father Flynn’s points of view at length, and straddles the line between the two brilliantly.
Viola Davis only appears in the movie briefly as the mother of the boy at the center of the controversy, but her conversation with Sister Aloysius as they walk through a park, is one of the most powerful scenes in Doubt, and it clarifies the racial aspects of the conflict and uncovers how important the time factor plays. It also leads to new revelations about the character of Sister Aloysius. That discussion is where we first see the cracks in Sister Aloysius’ armor, thanks in part to a steady and penetrating performance by Davis.
Doubt is a brilliant piece of filmmaking, that took its place among the best dramas to hit the screen, the day it was released in theaters.
- From Stage to Screen contains an intimate discussion with playwright, screenwriter and director John Patrick Shanley, and opens with Shanley exploring the play’s beginnings, which stemmed from its title. He also discusses his experience watching the play with one of the nuns who inspired it. The thoughtful short then moves to behind-the-scenes footage and interviews with the cast. Like the film itself, this featurette is carefully crafted to honor the film it discusses.
- Scoring Doubt features renowned composer Howard Shore discussing his inspiration for the music in the project and his collaboration with John Patrick Shanley and producer Scott Rudin. This is only a five minute vignette, but well worth watching, especially for fans of film scores, as it details the process of keeping the music powerful, yet not so overwhelming that it distracts the audience from the central themes.
- The Sisters of Charity contains insightful interviews with Meryl Streep, John Patrick Shanley and several nuns who were part of the Sisters of Charity during the timeframe that Doubt takes place. The nuns give their reactions to the film, and discuss the history of their sisterhood, as well as how the changes that were dramatized in the film, have changed the order and its mission.
- There is a Feature Commentary with John Patrick Shanley, which includes notes about the creation of the story, anecdotes from his childhood which help put certain issues into context, along with technical information on the film’s production.
- The Cast of Doubt features a lively conversation with actors Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams and Viola Davis. It’s amazing to watch the actors casually discussing their performances, after seeing how powerful their portrayals were.
Writer/Director: John Patrick Shanley
Cast: Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Joseph Foster, Amy Adams, Viola Davis
Original Release Year: 2008
Disc Release Date: April 7, 2009
Below are some exclusive clips from the Blu-ray and DVD releases.
Behind the Scenes: Cast Choices
Behind the Scenes: Sisters of Charity
Principal and Mrs. Miller