Reviewed By William Goss
Posted 12/28/08 15:21:42

"Old Habits Are Hard to Break"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

It’s 1964 in the Bronx, and Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep) has concerns.

She’s concerned that ball-point pens and cough drops are infiltrating the Catholic school that she presides over (to her, the latter are simply candy by another name). She’s concerned that Donald Miller (relative newcomer Joseph Foster II), the school’s only black student, will be singled out, though she gives no thought to the sexism inherent to the church’s own hierarchy. She’s concerned that Donald Miller has indeed been singled out by no less than the kindly Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman), and she’s concerned when a young nun (Amy Adams) makes mention of a suspect meeting between the two in the rectory. For her, that last part’s enough, or rather too much, and so Sister Aloysius sets out to confront the priest and cast him out, playing cat to his mouse and leaving the burden of proof for anyone else to bear.

The result is a taut morality play and a fine acting showcase, adapted from the stage by writer/director John Patrick Shanley, who strains to escape the trappings of chatty confrontations with titled camera angles and metaphors made literal that often prove more distracting than not. Still, they’re not enough to take one out of the proceedings, as matters of authority, faith, change, responsibility, accountability, the line between truth and certainty and the divide between righteousness and self-righteousness all share the spotlight as the stars volley back and forth in their judgments.

Streep’s sister claims that shouting only won fights in ancient Sparta, although that doesn’t stop her from railing against Hoffman’s priest with all manner of awards-baiting fury. Hoffman, though, comparatively keeps his cool, though his little tics and line readings are just enough to sway the viewer’s own beliefs. (The film relishes this ambiguity proudly; after all, it’s not so much a matter of whether or not he did it as it is of whether or not she’s right in her crusade.) Adams can merely try to hold her own against two titans in terms of characterization and acting ability, though she sells meek naïvete as well as anyone could. In a quiet, critical role, Foster helps Hoffman keep the scales of suspicion ever tilting, and as Miller’s mother, Viola Davis packs quite the punch in little more than a single scene as she tries and tries to convince Sister Aloysius of the significant personal stakes that her battle for moral superiority may not have taken into consideration.

What exactly is it, then, that keeps 'Doubt' from achieving a state of film greatness? God only knows.

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