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Friday, December 05, 2008


Doubt: The ModFab Review

In the spirit of Catholic contrition, I offer a full confession: I love dragon ladies. Maybe it's sexist, maybe it's a stereotype, but there's something thrilling about a bigger-than-life, chew-the-scenery performance, especially when the actress is talented and the character is a bit vicious. Cinema is, of course, populated with these iconic turns, which formed the bedrock of careers for Bette Davis, Joan Crawford and many others. In 2006, Judi Dench won my heart for the deliciously dishy lesbian-and-pedophiles soap opera known as Notes On A Scandal, which picked up more than a few trophies during awards season.

But the dragon lady moviegoers flocked to that year was Miranda Priestly, the scabrous fashion editor played by Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada. Smart, determined, and psychologically brutal, Miranda was chilly elegance on the outside, fiery passion contained (forced?) inside. It remains one of the great performances in Streep's long, charmed career....and is, perhaps, why Streep decided to step into the shoes of another dragon lady: Sister Aloysius, the terrifying Catholic school principal at the heart of Doubt.

Set in 1960's New York and based on the Pulitzer-winning play by John Patrick Shanley (who also directs), Doubt, which was subtitled "A Parable" on Broadway, explores the crippling nature of absolutism and dogma. The Catholic Church is a ripe target for a morality tale of this sort, and Shanley sets up a near-epic battle of wills between Sister Aloysius and the parish priest, Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Aloysius is a hard-line traditionalist nun and a stern disciplinarian; Flynn, in contrast, is a touchy-feely reformer. Their natural distaste for one another comes into sharp relief when a younger nun, Sister James (Amy Adams), raises concerns about possible inappropriate behavior between Flynn and the school's first black student, Donald Miller (Joseph Foster II). What is fact and what is the invention of the nuns? What can we ever be certain of, in this shifting, changing society? Are our instincts better guides than our eyes? Doubt raises provocative questions, and does so in grand, eloquent brushstrokes that alternate between archness and probity.

Shanley's film is nowhere near as sophisticated as his play; on screen, Doubt's visual metaphors become grossly overstated, and the claustrophic tension that is natural in theatre is lost on celluloid. In overblown scene after scene, there are raised eyebrows, furtive glances, and longer-than-usual stares; at times, the story's cruelty is woefully blunted by the screenplay's careening tendency to wallow and indulge. In short, Doubt should have been a great film. And it's my sad duty to report to you that it's not.

Judging it against the play, however, may be unfair; taken on its own merits as a pop entertainment, Doubt the movie is hardly a waste of time. Two of the performances -- Hoffman's and that of Viola Davis, who blows the screen away as Donald's mother in a single scene -- are unmissable for anyone who cares about quality cinema. For fans of production design, the exquisitely detailed work of David Gropman, Peter Rogness and Ellen Christiansen, which boasts impressive historical research and thematic creativity, will be the movie's great pleasure.

And then there's Streep. As one might guess from seeing Prada or Death Becomes Her, Streep approaches dragon-lady roles like a starving man approaches a porterhouse. Her Aloysius isn't as majestically stoic (or as effective) as Cherry Jones' sublime version on Broadway, but it's certainly nasty, more calculated, and no less savage. Many will say it's "too big" or even campy, but I think that's reductive; here's one of the great interpreters of our age, performing in a role that has almost gone out of fashion in Hollywood. She's a shark, but a shark that knows her time at the top of the food chain is limited; the world of rules and discipline is disappearing right before her eyes. The rage in her eyes is that of a wounded animal, caught in a trap...blustery and overstated, yes, but also operatic in the way great tragedians can be. It won't be for everyone...but sue me, I love dragon ladies. And I'd watch Aloysius battle against Doubt over and over again.
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