Carly at the Movies | No doubt about it: “Doubt” is Oscar-bound

Hollywood is a lot like that proverbial ketchup bottle when it comes to good movies. Nothing comes out all year long, and then a lot’ll.
After a year-long steady diet of superheroes, gun fights and car chases, I’m suddenly on a roll and have seen several remarkable films in the past few weeks. First came “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas,” then “Benjamin Button,” then “Mongol” (on pay-per-view) and now more proof of that pudding is “Doubt,” currently playing at The Visulite in Staunton.

Philip Seymour Hoffman co-stars as a 1960s priest who either did or did not abuse an altar boy. Meryl Streep is the nun, the principal of the Catholic school, who accuses him. And Amy Adams holds her own playing the innocent young teacher/nun who informs Streep that Hoffman has been acting a little weird around the altar boy.

John Patrick Shanley wrote the gripping screenplay based on his own stage play that ran on Broadway for a year. The film is nominated for five Golden Globe awards – Streep for acting, Hoffman, Adams, and Viola Davis (playing the boy’s mother) for supporting roles, and Shanley for screenplay. All the performances are Oscar-worthy, there’s no doubt about it.

The setting is perfect; a run-down Catholic school in New York in the midst of winter. It’s as bleak and ominous as the cloud of suspicion that grows in Streep’s heart. She’s an old-timer who believes in strict discipline and rarely misses the chance to whack a miscreant student in the head. She mistrusts and doubts the priest’s more modern attitude about everything. Why, that whippersnapper thinks you can “teach” students by sparing the rod and spoiling the child. And what’s more, he smokes. and even uses one of those new-fangled ballpoint pens!

The scenes with Hoffman and Streep sparring verbally simply crackle with excitement as the themes of racial and gender inequality flow along just beneath the surface. The film gravitates around the question: Did he do it, or is Streep simply out to get him?

Pulitzer Prize-winning author John Patrick Shanley won his first Oscar for “Moonstruck” in 1987 and also wrote the brilliant but nearly-forgotten “Five Corners.” He experienced the rigors of a Catholic school education, having been expelled from one himself as a youngster.

I know that Streep is adored for many of her striking roles over the past decades, but rarely have I seen here fit into a character so perfectly as she does in “Doubt.” She literally IS the aging harridan, bent on taking out her lifelong frustrations on a young priest. And yet, if her accusations are correct, she must be viewed as a kind of hero, fighting the good fight against a male-dominated religious establishment.

Who knows what Shanley had in mind? Was the priest guilty? As he did when the play first came to Broadway, Shanley told the male lead (Hoffman) the answer, and kept it from the rest of the cast.

Viola Davis, an extraordinary and busy character actress, is marvelous as the boy’s world-weary mother and is only on screen for about five minutes. It’s all she needs to add a totally different perspective to the intellectual battle that rages through the movie.

The film is literate, rich in nuance, touched with the inadvertent humor of the human comedy, and needs no violence to keep you on the edge of your seat. Don’t miss it.

 

– Column by Carl Larsen


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