Meryl Streep is just one of the few actors I’ve watched over the years who truly has the ability to mesmerize me. I’ve often said she could simply sit silently in a chair for fifteen minutes and make it an affecting experience. With her performance in 2008’s Doubt, Streep has once again proven she is one of America’s greatest actresses of the last half century; perhaps ever.
Doubt is one of the few films made in recent years which challenge us to think about and examine an issue from several different angles without allowing us to get side tracked by action sequences or special effects. Doubt is rarer still, by refusing to take a side; forcing viewers to viewers to digest the facts and form their own opinion. Without pretense, the film presents its story and as its multiple facets unfold, we see how one incident–real or imagined–can change the course of several lives forever.

DoubtDoubt rightfully earned five Academy Award nominations–four for acting, one for best adapted screenplay–after watching Doubt on Blu-ray, I came away thoroughly convinced that this film stands as one of the three best movies of 2008. Writer-director John Patrick Shanley, who adapted his Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning play, expertly puts forth the idea that even in a world of spiritual certainty; doubt is a part of our lives; forcing change and expanding our minds and souls.
It’s the fall of 1964 at the Saint Nicholas School in the Bronx and the school’s Principal, Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep), rules her domain with an iron hand. She comes down hard on students and fellow Sisters who step out of line and turns a suspicious eye to any type of change or progression. “Every easy choice today will have its consequences tomorrow,” she says. She detests ballpoint pens, believing they are behind the decline in penmanship skills.
Given Sister Aloysius’ strict manner, it comes as no surprise that the relatively young Father Flynn (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) gives her reason for concern. Flynn is an easy going guy, who has a good rapport with all the students. He seems to try and have some fun with them, rather than constantly keeping them in line. He has taken a particular interest in Donald Muller (Joseph Foster II), a recent transfer and the school’s only black student. The Sister is immediately put off by the young priests more modern ways of thinking.
She is particularly disturbed by Father Flynn’s sermon at the outset of the film, on religious doubt. “Doubt can be a bond as powerful and sustaining as certainty,” he says, with great conviction. “When you are lost, you are not alone.” Sister Aloysius is appalled to think that Father Flynn could be speaking from personal experience–who ever heard of a priest having doubts?
Under Aloysius’ charge is the charming, young Sister James (Amy Adams) who experience in the world seems limited to what she learned in the convent, though dearly loves teaching. Gradually during one semester, Sister James unwittingly gives Sister Aloysius the ammunition she’s been looking for to investigate Father Flynn. The younger woman informs her superior that the priest summoned Donald Muller to the rectory alone. Aloysius immediately zeros in on her prey; Father Flynn’s fate is sealed.
Donald’s mother (Viola Davis), fears that her son will be expelled from the school. He has been accused of drinking altar wine that was given to him by Father Flynn. In one of the most emotionally effective scenes I’ve seen in film in years, Mrs. Muller appeals directly to Sister Aloysius. Rarely does a performance lasting less than ten minutes have such a profound effect on a movie but Davis brings the real world face-to-face with Sister Aloysius’ moral certainty and nearly brings her to her knees. It’s an extremely powerful scene.
The strong wind that blows throughout the film signals a shift in ideology and morals both within the church and society at large–a shift few in the parish are willing to embrace. Despite that, doubt is seeping in and affecting almost everyone. Most surprisingly, Sister Aloysius is not immune. Yet Father Flynn’s guilt or innocence is only one element of a much larger question of doubt encompassing faith, sexuality, right or wrong, the future, progress, and personal motivations.
Some will be certain what conclusions they should draw from Doubt. For others, Shanley leaves us doubting. How far should we go to seek the truth? When is it better to simply look the other way? The movie is well written and filled with solid performances; Doubt is one of those rare films that leaves the audiences thinking, long after the credits roll.
Doubt takes place during the fall and winter. As a result, the cityscapes look dull and gray; lacking in color. The harsh church interiors offer little more than different shades of brown. Regardless, the 1080p/MPEG-4 AVC transfer is in no way dull. Shanely has found innovative ways to infuse the film with splashes of muted colors that add depth to an otherwise bleak palette. Black is everywhere in Doubt and the saturation is excellent. Contrast is superb, with whites often playing against the dark fabric of the sisters’ habits to marvelous effect. The range of fleshtones all look natural and details show up well.
Some grain is evident but it lends to the film-like feel and contributes to the harshness of the story. Close-ups are crisp, allowing for clarity of facial features, while textures are well rendered. The print is spotless, and no evidence of edge enhancement or digital processing could be detected. This is a fine transfer that does justice to Shanley’s excellent film.
The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track impresses with both its subtlety and force. Dialogue is the movie’s main responsibility and every incisive word comes through loud and clear. There’s no distortion on the high end and no drop outs on the low. Both Streep, with her terrific New York accent, and Hoffman possess marvelous speaking voices, and this track really highlights this, while also complementing Davis’ dulcet and Adams’ puerile tones. In addition, the church service sequences accurately reflect the basilica’s booming acoustics and delicate echoes, making us feel as if we’re sitting right there in the pews.
Doubt provides some interesting and intelligent extras:
Audio Commentary – Writer-director John Patrick Shanley sits down for an informative and involving commentary that gives us a greater sense of the time, ideals, and religious customs infusing Doubt. Shanley shot much of the film in and around his old Bronx stomping grounds. He points out the real locations where he played and went to school as a boy. He shares marvelous details about life in the early ’60s and his own parochial school experiences and talks about how society changed after President Kennedy’s assassination. His remarks about the movie include a discussion of the lengthy rehearsal process; the attitudes of Streep and Hoffman on the set, and their mastery of the material; the insecurity of Adams, who feared she’d freeze up in the presence of such honored actors; a few of the differences between the stage play and film; and his collaboration with composer Shore.
Featurette: “From Stage to Screen” (HD, 19 minutes) – This provides Shanley the opportunity to both discuss the material himself and interview Streep about it. We learn that he based the character of Sister James on his own first grade teacher (who shares her thoughts about Doubt in the piece) and hear about the struggles of adapting and opening up a four-character, one-location play for the screen. Shanley also talks about the importance of shooting on location in New York and how he cast the film, while Streep, Hoffman, Davis, and Adams individually discuss their own connections to the play, their preparation, and relationships with each other.
Featurette: “The Cast of Doubt” (HD, 14 minutes) – Streep, Hoffman, Davis, and Adams submit to a casual chat with Entertainment Weekly’s Dave Karger. Karger asks ridiculous questions about hair and shooting outside as opposed to inside, and it’s a credit to the actors that they’re able to craft substantive answers and steer the discussion toward issues they think are important to address.
Featurette: “Scoring Doubt” (HD, 4 minutes) – Composer Howard Shore relates his “chamber music approach” toward the film’s score, and how he tried not to cast judgment with his themes. This brief but illuminating featurette is enhanced by shots of the actual scoring sessions, which illustrate the technical process of matching music with various dramatic scenes.
Featurette: “Sisters of Charity” (HD, 6 minutes) – A quartet of nuns from this order discuss their daily routine, the origin of their habit, and strict atmosphere in which they lived. They also touch upon the changes inflicted upon them when the Second Vatican Council demanded they modernize in 1962.
Theatrical Trailers (HD) – Previews for The Proposal, Lost and a promo for Miramax Films.