These days, the public’s attitude towards Catholic priests on the issues of sexual abuse and molestation can best be described as cynical. In many instances, people would likely give credence to allegations of wrongdoing even before an official investigation is launched.
So the 2008 film Doubt, which focuses on just such an issue, seems like a timely piece that can give viewers insight on a current societal problem. The only thing is, the action in the film takes place in 1964 and introduces race into the mixture, giving the whole situation some different nuances than would be expected of a modern-day setting.
Plot summary (with possible spoilers): The film opens with Father Flynn (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman) delivering a sermon about doubt as it pertains to the Catholic faith. Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep), the headmistress of the school attached to the church, wonders why Father Flynn would choose that subject to preach about, and orders the other sisters to watch Father Flynn and report any suspicious actions.
Sister James (Amy Adams), the youngest and most idealistic of the nuns, actually does see Father Flynn acting a bit strange, particularly in relation to a boy named Donald Miller. Donald, as the school’s only African-American student, is a loner and an outsider, which puts him squarely into the typical victim profile that abusers like to target. When Father Flynn calls the boy out of Sister James’ class, and has him later return with the distinct smell of alcohol on his breath, Sister James thinks she ought to report this to Sister Aloysius. After noticing Father Flynn putting a white shirt in Donald’s locker, Sister James is further convinced that something is amiss.
Upon hearing Sister James’ story, Sister Aloysius immediately believes in Father Flynn’s guilt. She sets up a meeting with Father Flynn, and tells him to explain himself. Father Flynn offers an explanation that could be plausible, but Sister Aloysius is not satisfied. She then asks Father Flynn flat-out if he’s doing anything untoward with the boy, which he vehemently denies. That’s good enough for Sister James, who believes that Father Flynn is telling the truth.
Sister Aloysius, however, refuses to give up. She wants nothing less than for Father Flynn to leave the parish, so she makes it her personal mission to see that this happens. The rest of the film then shows the various actions that Sister Aloysius takes to get rid of Father Flynn, as well as her own spiritual struggle about what eventually happens.
My Reaction: I thought Doubt was an excellent film, one of the best I’ve seen in a long time. The overriding reason for this was because of the acting performances. Meryl Streep in particular was amazing from beginning to end, and I’ll be very surprised if she doesn’t win an Oscar for her efforts. I’m not usually the type of person who notices acting in a film, but it’s hard to miss it here. Streep was terrific!
Philip Seymour Hoffman was perfectly cast as Father Flynn as well. He looked and acted just smarmy enough that the viewer could conceive of him abusing the child, and yet at the same time, his story and his denials were plausible enough to sow the seeds of doubt — which is exactly what happened with Sister James.
I thought the handling of the main storyline was pretty good. I especially liked the twist that Donald Miller’s mom brought to the table… The last thing I expected her to say was that Donald just had to get through the year and that her husband beat Donald for being “that way”. Wow.
And for the record, I really don’t know if Father Flynn did anything or not. There’s just too much “doubt” about the situation, and without a real investigation or questioning of Donald Miller, it’s impossible to tell what really went on. I’m surprised that he didn’t put up more of a fight, though. That had me leaning towards guilty near the end there.
Overall, Doubt was an excellent, thought-provoking film that had me riveted all the way through. You’ll enjoy the story and the wonderful acting in this one, and you’ll be debating Father Flynn’s guilt or innocence for a long time afterward. I give it 4 stars out of 5.