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Miramax Films

Tough love

Movies | Doubt offers a complex look at faith and compassion

Issue: "Millions cut down," Jan. 17, 2009

Doubt, an excellent big-screen adaptation of a Broadway play by John Patrick Shanley, starts with three familiar figures: a kind Catholic priest, a harsh intolerant nun, and a trusting young nun. However, these characters are challenged and developed so richly that, by the end, the audience doubts its initial impressions. The priest's kindness may be merely a sinister front. The nun's inflexibility is revealed as, perhaps, compassion in action. And the young nun's trust is traded for something more complex: the beginnings of understanding of human nature.

The movie (rated PG-13 for "thematic material") opens in 1964 with a homily on doubt given by Father Flynn (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), the genial pastor of the parish church and school. Wide-eyed Sister James (Amy Adams) sits in her pew while the older Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep) glides down the aisle like an avenging raven, smacking talking children and hissing sleeping ones awake. As the school principal feared by the children, and many of the adults, Sister Aloysius is strict to the extreme, banning hair clips, secular Christmas songs, and ballpoint pens, which she sees as leading to the decline of penmanship. "Every easy choice today will have its consequence tomorrow," she says.

Both Sister James and Father Flynn wish for a warmer, more welcoming church and school. Flynn does not hesitate to abandon apparently outdated rules in his quest to humanize the church. Yet, when suspicions arise about his relationship with a student, the strict moral code espoused by Sister Aloysius is the very thing that propels her to pursue the issue doggedly. Is Father Flynn acting out of compassion and reaching out to a troubled child or taking advantage of an isolated one? Sister Aloysius' life-long study of human nature convinces her it's the latter, while the more trusting Sister James wavers.

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Brilliantly acted, especially by Streep as the hard-bitten but ultimately loving Sister Aloysius, this riveting film contains profound reflections on faith. In the end the battle costs everyone something, not the least Sister Aloysius.

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