Cuddle the ambiguity. Bathe in it. Hell, you might as well have sex with it while you're there, because that's what John Patrick Shanley is doing. He's so in love with ambiguity he's built it it's own house so he can visit it on weekends. There's really nothing better than not knowing a fucking thing about your characters, is there? I mean, I, for one, like nothing better than leaving a cinema knowing nothing more than when I entered it. Such unilluminating storytelling is what everyone dreams of participating in. Meryl Streep knows this. Philip Seymour Hoffman too. They know you don't need to fully understand these characters, or have them make any coherent sense. That's why they shout; it dilutes your brain function, wills you into submission.
Oh, I'm sorry. I think me and sarcasm got a bit too involved there. But I've kicked him out in his underpants now, so don't worry. It's perfectly obvious that Doubt relies on ambiguity like a crutch, but the problem is that it does it in all the wrong places. Check Shanley's trash, because I'm sure that somewhere in there he's disposed of a checklist of all the Big Points that he runs around checking off within the film. Gender politics, check. Racial tension, check. Sexuality, check. Modernity versus tradition, check. Some of these points are so broadly telegraphed that it's almost absurd, and worse, removes the actors even further from any kind of full characterization. Streep and Hoffman eventually give in entirely to this idea, maybe because in the second half the film basically becomes a yelling duet between the two of them. Not hard, since the film famously only really has four characters of any substance whatsoever, and Amy Adams' precocious young nun has already vanished and Viola Davis' mother already swooped in for her one remarkable powerhouse scene.
You can't blame the two headliners too much, though. I hate to point the finger of blame, but this is Shanley's film and Shanley is the problem. For all I know, his original Broadway play is an utter masterpiece, but Shanley is all too conscious that this is a film and he is all too set on opening it out. Intense focus on wild, dangerous weather is alarmingly foregrounded and feels utterly pointless, while his gathering use of canted angles makes the dialectics feel even more self-consciously unbalanced than they already do. One repeated trope of shouting- both from Hoffman and, in her most interesting scene, Adams- blowing the bulb in Streep's office feels particularly blunt in its intended irony. Since Shanley adapted his own stageplay, too, it's easy to blame him for the script's shortcomings.
But even Shanley knows that this is an actor's film, and therein lies both success and failure. Problems with Streep and Hoffman do not, sadly, lie solely in their denigration into a shouting volley- the accent she adopts easily tends towards hamminess, and too often that's the route Streep takes. Hoffman flips so sharply between the kind, caring and hip priest and the verbose, bellowing self-righteous priest that he's basically a priest with a split personality. But Philip, where's the ambiguity?!
But at least we have some superior people to back them up. Amy Adams is given a thankless role; or rather a thankless task, because where at first Doubt might even seen to be about her precocious, confused young nun, it throws her overboard with such sudden flippancy that it's sad to see such strong work go to waste. Adams' struggling against the script's continual insistence that Sister James is a wholly innocent fool mangled into suspicion by Streep's Sister Aloysius doesn't always come off, but it's fascinating to watch her embuing some depth to the character, shading ordinary moments with a more subtle approach that brings to mind, if in a much lighter way, Sally Hawkins' lauded Poppy from Happy-Go-Lucky.
And then there's Viola Davis. I could give you some romanticized backstory about how I already loved this formidable character actress, but I'll just throw out the title Solaris and be done with it. I think the nub of why the part of Mrs. Miller works as well as it does- and that's very well indeed- is because there's no hankering after ambiguity here. Indeed, it's the opposite- what we get from Mrs. Miller is a truth so surprising and naked that it takes both Sister Aloysius and the audience aback. Which is not to say that there is no ambiguity, no subtlety in Davis' performance itself. Mrs. Miller is warring with herself, wondering at first what the Sister wants and then what she should say in response. And further- this performance succeeds where the others don't, where Shanley doesn't, in anchoring the film in a recognisable universe, in a world we can connect with and understand. In Davis' remarkable ten minutes there are embued histories- of racial struggle, of gender struggle, of family struggle- and they are all mingling together as we watch her. It's hard not to tend to hyperbole when remembering this scene, because it sticks out so boldly, and although this is its design it is no less effective.
But sadly, once Mrs. Miller vacates the film, Shanley's muddy ambiguous wallpaper starts to curl up and he basically abandons Streep and Hoffman to try and yell it back onto the wall. Alright, so enough with my bizarre metaphors and whatnot, but I was actually alarmed by how, in pursuit of such delicate ambiguity Doubt could end up being so crashingly unsubtle. Maybe if Sister Aloysius existed as a coherent character beyond one scene I'd care. Maybe if you made any attempt to anchor this school in a world that doesn't function like a horror movie, I'd see these dilemmas as real. But maybe you're relying on Viola Davis a little too much, eh? She can't hold both ends of your wallpaper. C-