Doubt

Doubt

****1/2

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Paedophilia is such a contentious topic in modern society that it can be difficult to talk about it directly at all. What results is, too often, a conspiracy of silence in which difficult issues remain unaddressed. This has been particularly problematic within the Catholic church, where, in many places, paedophile priests have been able to get away with molesting children for years because to express doubt in them seemed almost tantamount to expressing doubt in God. This film explores the situation within the church through the microcosm of a single school, yet, in doing so, it doesn't let non-Catholics off the hook. It's a film which forces every viewer to look at themselves and question where their duties lie.

Donald Miller (Joseph Foster) is a friendly boy but an awkward one, the only black child in his Catholic school. His relief is clear when he is befriended by the priest there, Father Flynn, who is warm and fun-loving and keen to make everyone feel special.

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Flynn is the polar opposite of the school's stern headmistress, Sister Aloysius, the very sight of whose stern countenance makes the children freeze in terror. She doesn't like the priest and she doesn't pretend to. He wants the children to sing Frosty The Snowman at Christmas; she thinks it's Pagan and should be banned. But when shy young teacher Sister James comes to her with a whisper of concern about the relationship between the priest and the boy, Sister Aloysius' enmity reaches a whole different level.

The story develops as a battle of wits. Sister Aloysius cannot prove what she suspects, so she becomes determined to make Father Flynn admit it. Meryl Streep is perfectly cast as this brittle, bitter, yet formidable woman who must continually question her own motives as well as her observations. Opposite her, Philip Seymour Hoffman demonstrates once again that he is among the very best actors in Hollywood with a nuanced, charismatic performance that almost makes one willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. Sister James wants to. And here there are questions about the importance of moral purity. How willing are we to compromise our concerns, even with so much at stake, for the sake of making everyone (seem) happier in the immediate term? Amy Adams plays the younger nun with a judicious lack of grace, presenting her as the human core of an increasingly complicated moral conflict.

Then there are more complex questions. What if, even in the worst case scenario, the priest's intentions have made Donald's life better overall? What if it's what Donald wants - when might he be judged old enough to have a voice? As his troubled background emerges it becomes apparent that protecting him might not be as easy as it first seems.

Alert to wider social issues like US racial politics and the social position of women, Doubt is a much bigger story than is first apparent, but it keeps itself together by concentrating on its central characters, with sharp dialogue and towering performances. It suffers, towards the end, from being a little too stagey, but this is easy to forgive when there is so much else to admire. A refreshingly intelligent look at a subject we can't afford to ignore, it's one of this year's must-see films.

Reviewed on: 31 Jan 2009
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An infamously tough headteacher, also a nun, becomes convinced that the priest at her school is molesting one of the children.
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Director: John Patrick Shanley

Writer: John Patrick Shanley, based on his own play.

Starring: Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Viola Davis, Joseph Foster, Mike Roukis

Year: 2008

Runtime: 104 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US

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