This movie says one thing indelibly: a play is a play is a play. Why Hollywood keeps mistaking theatre for cinema is beyond me. Maybe all the accolades get in the way. But no matter how great a play, it must be destroyed if it’s to make a great movie. That’s why Baz Luhrmann was right to wreck Romeo + Juliet. If you worship words, you shouldn’t be making movies. Movies are pictures, not text. The trouble for writer/director John Patrick Shanley is that he’s made Doubt into a monument to his own (award-winning) stage play. As a movie: it would make a great play.
Set in the 60s the way Chaucer set tales in a barnyard, Doubt picks elements of the times that suit its purpose. At a Catholic school that might as well be called St Allegory, a repressive nun (Meryl Streep) rules over the children, chiding progress like the spirit of the 50s. She bemoans the kids’ calligraphy, and doubts that the one new nun at the school (Amy Adams) has the guts to enforce discipline the old-fashioned way. But something worse comes: a new priest (Philip Seymour Hoffman); who dotes on one of his altar boys. Is he loving, kind and Vatican II personified? Or – as rigid certainty would have it – is he up to no good?
The crux of the drama here is that there’s no dramatic irony. The audience doesn’t see Hoffman do anything, so, in effect; we share the characters’ doubts. The movie tips the scales a little by having Hoffman grow his fingernails long (see: De Niro in Angel Heart, or stop and think about long fingernails on a man for a second), but this isn’t Philip Seymour Hoffman of ten years ago (back then, you’d have figured him for a sex pervert if he was playing Superman).
The trouble comes with the acting. “Stagey” is, ironically, a bad bad word when it’s applied to actors. And (almost) everyone in Doubt is “stagey” as hell. Why is this bad? Because we’re watching closely – and to watch someone lie close-up is distracting. Doubting an actor is like doubting what you eat; you can’t savour anything. So you watch Meryl Streep hit her vocal marks (blink, point, look left, look right) and all you can see is the script.
Streep has fun with her role, but it’s the worst of her. My bet is that she gave Shanley what he wanted. Or that’s my hope. She does a Pacino in Doubt, that is: draw the focus to her eyes, and speak her lines in the style of Meryl Streep. Where there’s comedy, she mines it (Hoffman: “Where is your compassion?” Streep: “Nowhere you can get at it.”). Mostly, she hams it up.
Amy Adams once again plays a child-woman. Her character is meant to be earnestly sweet (like every woman she’s played since Junebug) but she’s got to watch she doesn’t flutter her eyelids her entire career. The nun she plays is so meek she’d apologise for saying the rosary. Adams is cute, but sometimes she’s so cute it’s like watching a hamster play Ophelia.
Philip Seymour Hoffman fairs better, but he’s still acted off the screen by Viola Davis. She’s the “almost” when I say that “almost” everyone in Doubt is “stagey”. She plays the altar boy’s mother. And I don’t know if she had ear-plugs in when Shanley was directing her, or if she just thought: this is my break, so f— it. But she delivers her speech (about her son) like she was the boy’s mother. And for five minutes Doubt is a story being told, not a theatre revival.
Don’t think that I don’t like John Patrick Shanley. He’s a great writer of fables (Moonstruck, Joe Versus the Volcano), but he’s been working in theatre for too long, and theatre has stuck to him. It isn’t that Doubt has only one setting – or that it’s all talk – that makes it “stagey”. It’s the way everyone acts like they’ve thought out their performance, as if you could see the words they’d underlined on their script. The worst of the theatre is when a play’s been performed to death. Doubt is like an elegy for what worked on stage.