Film Review | Sunday, 05 April 2009

And the truth shall set you free…?

Screen adaptations of stage dramas are an awkward phenomenon. A good one is hard to get right. It’s easy to fall into the trap of the ‘filmed play’ if the director isn’t careful. Looking at it superficially, one would think that a couple of tweaks here and there should be enough to propel the material from the stage to the cinema: a transitional scene here and there, a change of backdrop every now and then et voila! any intimation of creaky floorboards is washed away by the magic of Tinseltown.
But more work would need to be done if anything of value is to be wrung out. The dividing lines between acts can come off as all-too-apparent, the monologues too lengthy…an intense tete-a-tete, wrenched from its live roots and smothered by the mise-en-scene, can veer dangerously towards being just a tedious, overblown shouting match. Regardless, even a mismanaged adaptation can prove to be an excellent showcase for actors, since it falls to the thesps to carry a play from curtain rise to fall.
John Patrick Shanley’s adaptation of his Pulitzer, Drama Desk and Tony Award-winning play (which was actually staged in Malta a couple of years back), falls pray to some of those problems, but thankfully also has a glittering triad of performances to fall back on. The setting is a Bronx Catholic School in 1964, where the towering presence of conservative nun Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep) runs contrary to the direction the parish is attempting to head in, as exemplified by the amiable Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffmann). When she begins to suspect that he might be making sexual advances on an altar boy Donald (Joseph Foster), she lets it develop - mysteriously - into an unassailable certainty that threatens to destroy both Father Flynn’s reputation and the innocence of Sister James (Amy Adams), a new addition to the school.
The script itself is a wonderfully crafted and often unbearably tense psychological battleground. Tightly compacted into a 90-minute running time are issues of religious faith, race relations and the precarious relationship between church and community. But, as the title suggests, the dynamo that propels the whole drama is the very notion of doubt, which Father Flynn refers to as ‘a bond more powerful than certainty’. Shanley takes advantage of his characters’ opposing stances to mediate on this theme, while Sister James is caught in the middle. Ultimately, the performances are responsible for elevating it away from an intellectual exercise. I don’t remember ever seeing a bad performance by Hoffmann and here he definitely doesn’t disappoint: his corpulent and soulful, he’s easy to sympathise with, which becomes a bitter fact as the film progresses. Adams is arguably settled with the most challenging character of the three, since Sister James’ naiveté can potentially be seen as an annoying intrusion. Luckily, the skilful young actress manipulates this trait into a genuine intensity that serves as our way into the film. But it is Meryl Streep who steals the show. With mannerisms that could easily collapse into Gothic pastiche, she sustains a character that, amazingly, makes the entire film rotate around her iron-fisted axis. While it’s easy to pigeonhole her as the villain of the piece at the beginning, her unwavering backbone becomes strangely irresistible, and culminates to a painful climax in a scene with the equally brilliant Viola Davis. With the reliance of certain theatrical leitmotifs (such as the ‘peripatetic’ wind and other props), it becomes apparent that Shanley seems to be struggling to turn his play into a genuinely cinematic experience. The neutral colours that suffuse every scene also point towards a helplessness at adapting the material to another medium: there is never much leeway for a fresh perspective, the setting remains largely static. Naturally, there’s much to gain from this by way of atmosphere; a claustrophobic environment is an ideal extension of Sister Aloysius’ inflexible rule over the school but then, one wonders how intentional this aesthetic choice really is.
Doubt posits a highly interesting central problem and handles it with an astute, tight dramatic grip. Despite its somewhat creaky journey from stage to cinema, this remains one of the more worthy dramas of the season: a mercifully economic but mercilessly acerbic character study that hides more than it reveals, but is all the better for it.

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