One measure of a worthwhile film is whether it makes the audience think for longer than it takes to get out to the car. Bad and mediocre films are easily dismissable, but good films — even those with flaws — stick with viewers and demand further consideration. We went to see Doubt over the weekend, and I’m still considering how exactly I feel about it.
Set in the Bronx in 1964, the movie shows a power play between a younger, modern priest and a prickly, conservative nun running a Catholic school that has just admitted its first black student. Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep) distrusts Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and his modernizing mentality, especially when it comes to how he interacts with the students. She tells her staff to keep an eye on Flynn, and her youngest and most naive teacher, Sister James (Amy Adams) soon discovers something suspicious — or so she thinks.
This movie and the play on which it’s based evoke themes from some classic films, such as The Crucible and The Children’s Hour. It also takes part of its central conflict from the headlines of the past decade involving the Catholic Church. However, the film has a few surprises, and it will challenge the assumptions of viewers. As a Catholic, I had some doubts as to how the film would treat the church and religion in general, but I was not offended by anything I saw. It tells no untruths, although some of the truths may be uncomfortable.
The performances are excellent. I was expecially struck by Hoffman’s as the priest, who clearly starts off as the protagonist in this tale. Streep and Adams give highly credible performances as nuns of different temperaments and different generations. Viola Davis does well in a smaller but critical role of Mrs. Miller, the mother of the student at the center of controversy. The interaction between the nuns and between the priests is a subtle but important aspect of this film, and the supporting cast hit its target in showing the contrasts.
I’d recommend the film, but it’s not light viewing.
Update: The US Conference of Catholic Bishops gives Doubt a very good review. Be warned: there are a couple of spoilers in this review. (via Damian G in the comments)