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Wednesday 08 April 2009

Review: Streep & Hoffman in Doubt

Posted in: Movies
By Matt Akersten - 12th January 2009

Certainty?: Meryl Streep as Sister Aloysius
Sister Aloysius: What exactly happened in the rectory?
Father Brendan: Happened? Nothing happened. I had a talk with a boy.
Sister Aloysius: About what?
Father Brendan: A private matter.
Sister Aloysius: He's twelve years old, what could be 'private'?

Opening this week in New Zealand is a tense and tightly-plotted sizzler of a film with an outstanding cast. It's the kind of movie you'll be thinking about long after the credits roll.

Meryl Streep – last seen camping it up in all-singing, all-dancing ABBA movie Mamma Mia – plays stern disciplinarian nun Sister Aloysius, teaching in a New York Catholic school in 1964. Her polar opposite is the forward-thinking Father Brendan (Philip Seymour Hoffman) who is nice to the students, is adored by his parish, has a laugh once in a while, and writes with a new-fangled ballpoint pen. How very progressive! Sister Aloysius does not approve.

So when she finds out Father Brendan has met alone with a 12-year-old boy pupil, she quickly makes up her mind that something very dodgy is going on – and soon confronts him with her concerns. A tense confrontation results in a tricky situation for both. Sister Aloysius is compelled to take further action, armed with only circumstantial evidence, and despite Father Brendan's denials.

Doubts?: Philip Seymour Hoffman as Father Brendan, with Amy Adams as Sister James
The story tumbles forward in surprising and exciting ways. It's easy to cheer for the likeable Father Brendan – who might well be a closeted gay man but this is not made clear – except the twisting plot does make you doubt him at times. What's most startling is the reaction of the boy's mother...

This film may well remind Kiwi viewers of the Peter Ellis case – the Christchurch gay man convicted and sentenced to ten years' jail for child sex abuse while he was working in a crèche, who many now believe was the innocent victim of a 'witch hunt'. Can we ever be certain of a crime through circumstantial or tainted evidence? And how much more complicated might a situation get if we try to ignore concerns for want of a 'return to simplicity'? Also food for thought here is the age-old debate: Do students respond better to an affable and accepting teacher, or a stern disciplinarian?

There are subtleties in the direction which make me want to see Doubt again for more clues about guilt or innocence. What was the significance of the light going out? Was there any better way for Sister Aloysius to act on her concerns? And does the last scene necessarily prove or disprove anything?

As enjoyable as repeat viewings of the film might be though, I suspect no certainties would ever result. Like with Michael Jackson and his Neverland Ranch, there would be Doubts which linger on…

Doubt is released in New Zealand cinemas from Thursday 15 January 2009. The film's official trailer is shown below.

Matt Akersten - 12th January 2009