Notes on Film: Doubt

Spoiler Alert: If you intend to watch the movie, please read no further. Many plot details are revealed here which may interfere with your enjoyment of the film.

DoubtDoubt (2008) is an intensely packed little drama between four deeply-flawed characters. It betrays its theatrical origins in its fondness for words, which usually happens in intimate spaces, and its proclivity for the unsaid.

I picked the Doubt DVD on an unplanned walk through the neighborhood. It was sitting on a formica shelf of a 5 by 5 feet room, which is what is called locally as a potti kadai (literally translated as box shop, selling newspapers, magazines, cigarettes, and chewing gum) in its previous life. Today, it’s a full-fledged shop, selling all kinds of movies – purely pirated – in three languages. Now, back to the movie proper.

Most of the action takes places indoors. It’s not a film that concentrates on external landscapes, rather on internal ones. When the camera spends so much time indoors, it goes without saying that the most interesting drama happens in the head.

The time was a year after Kennedy’s assassination, somewhere in America is a school run by the strict principal Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep in an unlikely role). Sister James (Amy Adams in a far cry from her Enchanted role) is the history teacher who struggles to keep control of her class. Sister James’ innocence and fragility is not a secret. That is why it’s all the more poignant that it is she who recognizes that something is wrong with Father Flynn’s (Philip Seymour Hoffman in a powerful role) relationship with the school’s first non white student, Donald Miller (Joseph Foster). No one doubts her sincerity. Sister Aloysius on the other hand is an old hand. Her mistrust of all things new and modern, symbolized by her opposition to the use of the ballpoint pen, and therefore of change. “The wind has changed,” she tells the gardener after a particularly fierce storm. It’s a sign that she will do anything to stop change – the wind itself if need be – from entering the portals of her organized, quiet world. We don’t know her intensions other than dislike and mistrust, which propels her into confronting Father Flynn about the inappropriate relationship with the school’s first non white student. 

The tug of war between the male and female members of the church is legendary. Sister Aloysius knows who wields the power. And yet she is willing to go against the traditional power structure.

So far so good.

But what’s the drama if everything goes according to plan? Father Flynn turns out to be the inspiring ‘cool’ teacher in whom every adolescent finds a confident. Sister James begins to doubt whatever she has inferred. Sister Aloysius begins her journey from certainty to doubt. In other words, the winds of change begin to blow. It’s no coincidence that Bob Dylan’s iconic song Blowin’ in the Wind was released just a year before in 1963. 

The structure of the film is very neat. It starts with a sermon on doubt delivered by Father Flynn who would get quite untangled in it and ends with Sister Aloysius starting to grow some doubts of her own. Little touches like the way people respond to the wind are so revelatory. Sister Aloysius shuts windows to protect herself. Sister James is unperturbed by it.

Amy Adams as Sister James is very effective as the innocent teacher who takes everything at face value. The actress brings a certain glass-like quality to the character. Her eyes, limpid pools of vulnerability remind me of glass–transparent and strong, but which can break under enough pressure. Meryl Streep took me by surprise. She evokes admiration, fear, and disgust in equal measure but at different points in the film. Philip Seymour Hoffman as the sincere and yet indefinable Father Flynn always kept me guessing till the end whether he was guilty or not. Viola Davis shines in a short role. Her helplessness and knowledge are so superbly conveyed in the short time that she was on the screen.

The film seems to gain oxygen from the things that are not said. No one tells explicitly what “the problem” is. Everything is hinted at, nothing said. Yet words are spoken and judgments delivered. It’s a wonderful little film that explores people’s intentions and the effect of doubting or not doubting everything that you see or hear.

Watch it for the quality performances of the main actors.

Let me know what you think.

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