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Doubt – review, angry, outspoken, minor spoilers

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Doubt – John Patrick Stanley

God I hate this beautifully acted film. Seldom has so much talent been squandered on such a shallow, mealy-mouthed apologia for the Catholic Church’s shameful history of dealing with the long-term, life-destroying abuse of children by Catholic Priests. Even setting this morally muddled, spiritually vapid drama in 1964 when Writer-Director John Patrick Stanley was just 14 years-old is no excuse. The abuse of children and the conspiracy of silence about it within the Catholic Church was just as appalling then as now. Just as wrong. Just as preventable. It just needed individual and corporate courage and honesty. It just needed some real Christianity.

I am an agnostic but as I understand it Christ’s ‘church’ is to be found wherever two or more people gather in His name – not in a gilded palace in Rome, with one of the biggest and best-managed investment portfolios on earth, or a world-wide institution too often allowing the priority of its earthly authority and power to prevail over its spiritual mission. And yes I accept that child abuse is not confined to the Catholic Church but the atavistic denial of sexuality as part of our ‘God-given’ (sic) nature, institutionalised through implacable adherence to the necessity of priestly celibacy increases the risk to children. Exponentially. All three Abrahamic religions are at root misogynistic and profoundly afraid of sexuality; and thus uniquely ill-prepared to deal with its abuse, even in young children.

Adapted for the screen from his own play, Stanley’s Direction is laboured and funereal in pace. We are about an hour into this 104 minute film before we get a remotely dramatic scene between that consummate acting technician Meryl Streep as Sister Aloysius Beauver and the much under-rated Viola Davis as the mother of Donald – tubby altar boy and new and only black boy in school, whose aching vulnerability Father Brendan Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) seeks to comfort.

Streep’s Sister Beauver in charge of the nuns at St Nicholas School in the Bronx, is feisty, blunt speaking and full of no-nonsense certitude about the critical things in her world: no jewellery for girls, no talking in church, no long nails, and no touching a teacher, priest or nun, by students even innocently on the arm. Sister Beauver’s life is one of rectitude and certitude – she no’s everything. One or two nice subtle visual touches, unobtrusively helping an ailing nun for example, are meant to suggest to us that Beauver’s compassion exists but is well-hidden. As she says in perhaps the best line in the film, during a confrontation with Flynn when he asks her “where is your compassion?” she replies laconically “somewhere you can’t get at it.” Pure Streep: beautifully timed and delivered with perfect intonation.

Doubt is at best a two act play which judging by the intellectual thinness of its content might best be distilled into one. Come to think of it, a one-line aphorism might just about do the job. Stanley wastes the first hour of the film failing to set up the basic ambiguities upon which his title and his play depends. Flynn shows an unexceptional tendency to favour the plump, uncertain anxious new boy. Seymour-Hoffman’s own heavy set figure and vulnerability makes it only too believable that such an adult, no doubt himself bullied at school for the same reasons, would empathise with Donald. Three ambiguous events raise doubts: letting Donald try some communion wine, returning a shirt to his locker and giving him a hug in a fully public and occupied corridor after the boy has been bullied.

These moments of ambiguity are witnessed by the young, attractive Sister James (Amy Adams) so newly-scrubbed, fresh-faced and squeaky clean she looks like a refugee from Guys and Dolls or The Waltons. Sister James voices her anxieties to Beauver who is only too willing to embrace them with an instinctive distrust both of Flynn and the dominant authority over her vested in him as man and priest. Flying her full-blooded compassion from her demure little bonnet, Sister James allows Flynn to allay her anxieties. Not so Beauver. She is determined to get him out of the school at all costs.

The scene between Streep and Davis is a triumph of form over content: these two excellent actresses manage to invest nicely worded vacuity with a veneer of conviction that lasts at least until your first active brain cell shouts no! No! With the besetting vice of the early as opposed to late sixties and in every sense a cardinal sin of this context, these two women circle around each other with elliptical euphemisms neither quite clear what the other is trying to say and both afraid to find out. Beauver tries to warn Donald’s mother of Flynn’s ‘unhealthy’ interest and says Donald may have to leave the school. Rightly, Mrs Miller asks why Donald should leave when if anyone, it is Flynn who has done wrong. She points out that her violent husband beats Donald and doesn’t ‘like’ him because of his ‘nature’. She is therefore grateful for any positive attention from a male figure that increases her son’s self-respect and confidence. It is hard not to read this as Mom signalling to the nun that Donald is in fact ‘gay’ though she cannot bring herself to use the ugly language of the day to make this clear at a time when gayness was still a quality of the capital of France not the guilt-ridden instinct of a libidinous priest.

What the hell are we supposed to make of this? That Mrs Miller is willing to turn a blind eye to the seduction of her son because he and his seducer have a similar ‘nature’? The suppressed premise here is that it is somehow, not as bad if a sensitive, perhaps gay child is abused by a man of the cloth who shares his ‘nature’. This is so unbelievably crass as an idea one seeks desperately for some other purpose, dramatic or moral, to this conversation – and finds none. Except perhaps the inescapable suspicion that the dark and hateful attitudes lying beneath the conspiracy of silence, failure of spiritual and earthly moral duty infamously displayed by the Catholic hierarchy in city after city, country after country, year after year, were based upon exactly the same kind of unconscionable belief. Too many examples of this have emerged in recent years for the carefully nourished deniability of the Catholic Church to retain a shred of credibility.

Streep confronts and accuses Flynn and pretends to him she knows more than she does about his past – apparently catching him out. She forces him to move on observing with more irony than anger, that he has been promoted, by men of course, to head up another school elsewhere. The tone here is more of a frustrated feminine ambition than a shocked ethical soul. Sister James comforts her like a well-meaning cute little puppy when in the only moment even Streep can’t convince us of, Sister Beauver breaks down and ‘confesses’ that she is beset with doubts. I can’t believe this theatrical moment even works on stage. It certainly doesn’t on screen.

This is not meant as a general diatribe against the Catholic Church which of course does much good in the world. Wherever adults share private space with children, tragically, sexual abuse occurs, whether it be a rogue teacher, Scout leader, youth club or social worker etc. But it is the combination of the stark contradiction between the vocation of a priest and the abuse of children; the almost uniquely advantageous context the Church provides; and the inherent ethos of repressed sexuality that makes the priest case so much worse. But more, much more than this, it is the shameful, cowardly failure of the Catholic Church to root out such priests, even to quietly sweep infamous conduct under the carpet of deniability that creates the anger you hear in this review.

This is a profoundly important and deeply disturbing dramatic theme to address. But you do have to be up for it. John Patrick Stanley for me doesn’t begin to address the issues with which his play is supposedly concerned. Indeed the inadequacy of his treatment compounds the error and does a disservice to the very issues he is supposed to be addressing. It just won’t do to treat this issue as if it was matter of marginal behaviour, difficult to be sure of, played out against a genteel background of delicate and finely balanced angst-ridden crises of faith.

No, I don’t want to offend anyone but the words below are carefully chosen and fully justified. Stanley’s religious players are parsing the ambiguities and subtleties of Sister Beauver’s spiritual and gender frustrations; Sister James’ belief in the Tooth Fairy and Father Flynn agonising at the balance between spiritual sensitivity and sexual desire. In the real world of the issue Stanley dramatically lets down – a constant stream of innocent young children were year in year out, in countries around the world being bug***red and f***ked and having their lives destroyed for ever by priests hiding behind their cassocks. God forgive them – but the Church shouldn’t. The Church can’t. It doesn’t have the right. Not when it embraces at its heart the heinous doctrine of Original Sin.

As you may have gathered this wishy-washy, pusillanimous apology for a movie makes me very angry. And that is rare, believe it or not. To have abused real talent by engaging it to so little worthwhile artistic or moral purpose, just adds insult to injury.

Find me the many ex-nuns and ex-priests or just plain believers, who have left the Church in disgust at its failure to confront this issue; or even those whose ‘careers’ and lives in the Church have been blighted by being too outspoken about such blatant abuse to an implacably complacent hierarchy. Now that would be a story worth telling; an artistic aspiration to admire; and a worthwhile use of the talent misused in Doubt.

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