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February 10, 2009

So, a very quick historical note (which I’ve just Googled; I don’t know this stuff, I’m a heathen).

The Second Ecumenical Council of the Vatican, or Vatican II, was the Ecumenical Council of the Roman Catholic Church, which opened in 1962 and closed in 1965. There were, as you might imagine, many different things discussed at such an exalted council. Most importantly, much was aimed at modernising the church, and opening a dialogue with other religions. Many see these meetings as the most important event in the Catholic Church in the 20th century. Many see them as the moment when the Catholic Church began to lose its way.

Now, rest assurred you do not need to know this before seeing Doubt. Neither is it mentioned, but it’s good to know just what a state the Church was in at that time. And so, when I say that the film opens in 1964, at the Saint Nicholas Church School in the Bronx, you might very well expect to be about to experience a closed world, filled with tension, and you’d be right. And in the opening sermon by Father Brendan Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) the priest talks not of doctrine, but secular matters; of the Kennedy assassination, of the fear and despair prevalent in communities, and of the need to have someone to reach out to.

Father Flynn, of course, is a progressive.

He has his work cut out for him, for in direct opposition to his new and fancy ways (he uses a ballpoint pen, for starters) is the monumental concrete form of Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep) the Principal of the school, a towering exemplar of dogmatic common sense. And they, in turn, are presented with their own test as the school has just been joined by its first african-american student.

This student, Don, is about to turn the whole place upside down. In a brief conversation with young and impressionable Sister James (Amy Adams) Don appears upset, and he may even have alcohol on his breath. Sister James shares with Sister Aloysius a private suspicion that Father Flynn is paying him too much personal attention. Now, what does this mean, exactly? Of course, we all know what it might mean today, but here in 1960s America the exact nature of that suspicion is never made explicit. Indeed, almost nothing is made explicit in this most subtle and sophisticated of movies. All that – as far as Sister Aloysius is concerned – we need to know, is that there is doubt. Doubt about Father Flynn and his practices. Flynn, in the normal run of things embraces doubt. His approach embraces compassion and understanding, but in the Sister’s world this is very much at odds with her Righteousness.

The air crackles between these two protagonists. At around the half way mark, Sister James vanishes from the scene to take care of a family member and the stage (it is a very stagey film, adapted as it is from the director’s Pulitzer Prize winning play) is left to the two gigantic talents – Streep of the old school, Hoffman the almsot young pretender – to hammer it out between them. There is one 10 minute two-hander that they conduct, which is quite the most extraordinary piece of authoritative verbal sparring you will see in a very long time.

This has an old-fashioned 70s feel to it, an issue movie more concerned with character driven dialogue than any kind of action-led guff. As good as Streep is (and she’s seriously impressive), it is Hoffman who carries the film for me. But that’s the entire point. You see, in Doubt, your only moral guide really is yourself; so subtle and so sophisticated is this that it’s up to you the audience to make the actual decision as to whether Flynn is guilty (of anything) or merely misguided, or perfectly innocent. It’s not a question of there being no easy answers, it’s a question of there being no answers…don’t come expecting a revelation of lateral expiation, because you’ll go away disappointed. And it very much follows that whichever path you take leads you to rooting for that particular character and seeing an enitirely different film…

The central question of the film is, is doubt a strength or a weakness? There’s no doubt in my mind that what it actually is, is a truly extraordinary piece of movie-making, backed up by two of the best performances you’ll see all year. Not a cheery night out, of course, but this is proper grown-up intelligent cinema, and as far as food for thought is concerned, I’m a convert.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. February 10, 2009 3:30 pm

    interesting read, and good post, enjoyed


  2. February 10, 2009 3:34 pm

    Cheers newman, thanks for stopping by.

  3. March 1, 2009 8:01 am

    Just passing by.Btw, you website have great content!


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