Monday, January 12, 2009

"Doubt" - spoiler movie review

There was a long period in my life where I was wrong. So utterly and completely wrong.

The first thing I saw Meryl Streep in was the 1978 TV mini-series entitled "Holocaust". That was one hell of a series, and she certainly had a stand-out performance among many stand-out performances in the series. I then thought she was terrific in movies like "The Deer Hunter" and "Kramer vs. Kramer". But then, there was all this praise shovelled on "Out of Africa", which didn't actually do that much for me, and I think that was the beginning of the downslide. I really liked her in "Death Becomes Her", but otherwise, I was tired of the overwhelming praise heaped on her and the nominations tossed on her every time she did anything. I was MerylStreepedOut. And then I saw "The Devil Wears Prada", and I discovered that I liked her again. She was fabulous in that movie. I was happy that I liked her again so that when I heard she was going to be playing the mom in the film version of "Mamma Mia", I didn't immediately roll my eyes. And it's a good thing I didn't, because she was spectacular as Donna Sheridan. And in a 180 degree turn from Donna Sheridan, she was just as spectacular as the head nun in "Doubt".

Yes, that's my long, circuitious route to my review of "Doubt". I was not familiar with the stage play, so my first exposure was from seeing the trailer to the film, which immediately grabbed me, and seeing the film did not disappoint. Yeah, ok, the people to my left and the people behind me in the theatre were a little louder during the earlier parts of the movie than I really would have liked, but everyone soon quieted down, and it always amazes me to sit in a near-filled theatre that's deathly quiet because everyone is so focussed on the film being shown. And this isn't one of those shoot-em-up exploding movies so there's a lot of just talking - and still, silence in the audience.

There was so much that was just incredible about this movie, from the storyline to the script and dialogue to the performances all around and the direction as well. There were some funky directing/camera moves, but I understood where he was coming from, so I didn't mind that too much.

But the jewels are in the acting, especially with the trio of Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams.

Meryl Streep paints the perfect picture of a very, very, VERY old-fashioned nun, one who decries even the use of ball-point pens. But her character is softened by her tender attention to one of the aging nuns, who she protects. And her conviction is strong that she's doing the right thing in bringing down a priest that she believes is hurting children - but there's a hint to something in her past that has damaged her and makes her more susceptible to believing something like that.

Philip Seymour Hoffman plays a more modern priest who doesn't think fire and brimstone is all that will bring people into the fold. He believes in a more human, caring approach, even coaching the boys' basketball team. But how do you know when the line is crossed between being genuinely affectionate and caring and taking advantage of a young, lonely, outcast boy? An action can easily be misconstrued either way.

Amy Adams is perfect as the Pollyanna young nun who gets her innocence stripped away by being drawn into what might be a very disturbing situation. She doesn't want to believe the worst, so she is easily convinced that nothing is going on, but there's still another part of her that can't help wondering if she's doing the right thing.

Viola Davis is also very good in a smallish part as the mother of the boy that the priest is accused of being improper with. Her memorable scene is with Meryl Streep, when the head nun is trying to tell the mother that something bad may be happening with her son, but the mother has other concerns about her son, and while her attitude shocks the nun, it's a matter of choosing the lesser of all evils when it comes to what to do about her son's predicament.

I like that there is no absolute answer about whether the priest has done anything wrong. It would appear that he has because when the nun lies about calling his prior parish, he backs down. But we're not sure exactly what's in his past. There's no absolute proof. Is he a man who has gotten away with a lot because of his priestly robes and who keeps getting rewarded and promoted for his unspeakable betrayal, or is he a good priest who is able to rise above the unfounded suspicions and circumstances that those with darker minds might think up?

It's my understanding that the play is structured so that only the four characters I mention above are represented. I'm very interested in seeing the play sometime to see how it plays out on stage. I would imagine the tension would be even more palpable with that minimalist staging.

And just as a bookend, Meryl Streep's next movie is called "Julie and Julia", where she'll be playing Julia Child. She'll be reunited with Amy Adams, who plays the Julie in the title, and Julia Child's husband is being played by Stanley Tucci. Oh, and Mary Lynn Rajskub, Chloe of "24" fame, is in the movie as well. I can't wait.

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