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A Religious Experience: Streep and Hoffman put on acting clinic in Doubt 

click to enlarge A bee in her bonnet.
  • A bee in her bonnet.
A bee in her bonnet.
There is a line in Good Will Hunting that could be paraphrased thusly: "Only a handful of people can tell the difference between how good we are." And when it comes to acting, there are probably only a handful of people who can tell the difference between the best performance ever, and the performances by Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman in Doubt.

I could go on and on about the plot of Doubt, the meditation on religion in general and the Catholic Church in particular, as well as its relevance to the clergy molestation scandals today. I could talk about the script, the play from which it's based (written by John Patrick Shanley, who also directed this film), and the superb set design that gives the movie its frigid, eerie feel.

But then I would be putting you on, because I don't really care about any of that bullshit. This movie is all about its two main characters, and the once-in-a-lifetime talents that portray them.

Alas, you need to hear something about the movie's premise, right? Fine, then: Streep and Hoffman play a nun and a priest at a Catholic school in the Bronx in 1964, a time when, as they say, men were men and women were invisible. Unfortunately, in the world of the clergy, women were more than invisible; they were barely human. Streep and her fellow nuns live a quiet, unbelievably pious existence. When the nuns eat together, you can hear a pin drop.

Streep's Sister Aloysius is a sulphur-spewing tyrant as the principal of the school. At the onset of the film, she seems only to tolerate other humans as necessary inconveniences. Conversely, Father Flynn (Hoffman) laughs heartily while eating dinner and drinking wine with the bishop and monsignor. They carry on like good ol' boys at a backyard barbecue while the nuns seem to fear that a misstep while chewing could elicit a meter-stick to the head - or a stinging rebuke from Aloysius, which could be worse.

The differences between Flynn and Aloysius only get deeper. Flynn believes the Church should evolve to keep up with changing times. Aloysius considers such talk heretical. Furthermore, when suspicions of an inappropriate relationship between Flynn and a boy in the school are brought to her attention, Aloysius becomes Flynn's true rival. This conflict is the engine fueling the drama of the film.

The brilliance of Streep's performance is its layers. Like a good NFL running back, she wears down your defenses as the game goes on. She is part vicious combatant, part devoted steward. In one scene, she dramatically thrusts forward her cross and rosary beads in anger, as if from an outtake from The Exorcist III. In the hands of a lesser actor, such a gesture would draw laughter from any savvy audience. I viewed the film on a crowded opening night in Eugene, however, and it was dead silent.

Hoffman is also nothing less than superb. His Father Flynn is as charming as a car salesman, yet his sermons are heartfelt and sincere. Even if one believes the accusations against him, his rapport with his pupils is undeniable. When he goes toe-to-toe with Aloysius, however, his charm dissolves. This evolution is captured perfectly by Hoffman.

Perhaps to its detriment, Doubt is as devoid of frills as a nun's quarters. Adapted from a stage play of the same name, Doubt could have merely been filmed from an audience on Broadway. But its stage-like atmosphere is also a great place for Streep and Hoffman to let the lions out of their cages. Don't miss the circus.

Doubt ★★★✩
Starring: Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Viola Davis. Written and Directed by John Patrick Shanley. PG-13

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