Saturday, February 07, 2009

DOUBT - over-acted, over-written, over-directed

John Patrick Shanley has directed a movie based on his own award-winning play called DOUBT. It's about a Catholic priest in 1960s New York who may or may not have abused a young African American boy attending an overwhelmingly white Catholic school. The priest is chased out of the parish by a nun who is certain of her belief that he is a paedophile despite the lack of actual evidence. Or maybe she just doesn't like him because he is a liberal reformer who stands against her conservative interpretation of Church practice.

Now I like the fact that Shanley doesn't give us a clear-cut answer as to whether Father Flynn is guilty. And I especially like the reaction of the purportedly abused child's mother, Mrs Miller, to Sister Aloysius' suspicions. It's complicated, deftly explained, emotionally brutal. Because in essence, this good woman decides that maybe being abused is a price worth paying for a chance at college. It's a shocking, complicated reaction and Viola Davis totally sells it. She well deserves his Oscar nod.

Everything else, I hate.

I hate the direction. John Patrick Shanley directs like he's shouting. His film is full of pointless off-kilter camera angles and heavy-handed symbolism - lights gong out, winds of change. Most of all I hate the clumsy forced symmetry of the final scene. I hate Roger Deakins' anonymous sub-par cinematography. I hate the fact that the script never does say anything intelligent about the battle between pre and post Vatican II catholicism. And most of all, I hate the performances from Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman. Hoffman acts at the role, and expresses emotions by shouting louder. Streep plays Sister Aloysius like a pantomime villain. She has all the subtlety of the ruler-snapping nuns in THE BLUES BROTHERS. I laughed out loud at several of her line-readings.  She's so self-evidently prejudiced and bigoted I had not one iota of sympathy for her position - and that's fatal in a movie that's supposed to give you a balanced argument. 

I don't understand the hype. I don't get why this is meant to be so intelligent and so well-acted. It seems clumsy, superficial, and hammily acted.

DOUBT played Toronto 2008 and is currently on release in the US, Israel, Argentina, Australia, Norway, Croatia, Greece, Singapore, Bulgaria, Finland, Iceland, Italy, Spain, Germany, Hong Kong, the Netherlands, Portugal, Brazil and the UK. It goes on release next week in Belgium, France and South Korea and opens later in February in Poland, Slovakia, Estonia and Turkey. It opens in the Czech Republic on March 5th.

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