Cliche that I am, I backpacked around Europe in the summer between my junior and senior years in college. If you go back and look at my pictures from that trip — pictures that don’t include Naples, Pompei or half of my time in Rome after an Athenian pick-pocket lifted my camera while I was eating a gyro — you’ll discover a striking number are shot on diagonals, with canted framing, what the film folks call “Dutch angles.” What can I say? To 20-year-old Dan, the Eiffel Tower just looked more dynamic slightly sideways. You really only felt Kafka in the streets of Prague when they were slightly sideways. And the canals of Venice somehow became even more romantic when shot slightly sideways.
It’s an artistic phase I grew out of. Subsequent European pictures, while occasionally shot from low or high angles are, if nothing else, level.
I mention this mostly because while waiting to outgrow a similar phase himself, John Patrick Shanley appears to have had the opportunity to direct “Doubt,” an adaptation of his own award-winning play.
The question of how well “Doubt” succeeds as a movie depends on what you think the purpose of a filmed stage play actually is.
If you believe that a filmed stage play should open up the sometimes confined world of a theatrical production, giving the story and dialogue and performances room to breath and be experienced in a new way, taking advantage of the possibilities of the different media, “Doubt” probably fails.
To my mind, that perspective somewhat assumes that everybody saw the play on Broadway and thus desired or needed for the story to be opened up.
A second way to approach a filmed stage play is as a democratization of what is essentially a stuffy medium. Plays are expensive and the first-run versions mostly play in New York and London and occasionally LA or Chicago. If you’re not in one of those places, you might see a traveling production or a local version, but it isn’t the same thing. So even a claustrophobic filmed version of a stage play gives viewers a chance to experience that world for $10 bucks a pop.
In that respect, “Doubt” does a pretty fine job. Shanley may have jettisoned the Broadway leads — including Tony winners Cherry Jones and Adriane Lenox — for movie stars, but as great as the show’s Broadway cast may have been, it’s takes a fair measure of snobbery to turn your nose up at Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams and Viola Davis. So for $10, audiences can watch a “Doubt” all-star team on the big screen.
Is what audience get to enjoy especially cinematic? Nah. Shanley made his feature directing debut 18 years ago on “Joe Versus the Volcano” and that was a film with a far more developed visual sensibility. Not to say that he’s regressed, per se, but on “Doubt,” Shanley has hired some of the industry’s finest craftspeople to work together on a movie that’s both somber and mournful, but not very expansive. So my cousin’s cousin Howard Shore contributes a somber score and cinematographer Roger Deakins plays up the grays and blacks, accentuates the stripped-bare trees and the cold brick and stone walls.
Deakins gives the movie texture, but not scope. The camera looks down on characters, presumably taking the point-of-view of God, judging them. Characters stride through hallways that seem nearly sideways, presumably showing how their moral world is in crisis. Conversations are shot in tight close-ups, sometime from low angles — because Shanley read in a book that that can make people appear either powerful or sinister — and sometimes tilted, presumably to show their own skewed view of the circumstances. And sometimes the tripod just seems to have been broken, which was the excuse for the last movie I saw with this many Dutch angles, a little film called “Battlefield Earth.”
It would seem that Shanley’s failure to let his play breath would be a liability — and it often is — but much of the film’s tension comes from extended scenes that play out with a theatrical pacing, rather than a cinematic pacing.
The best example would be the long sequence between Streep’s Sister Aloysius and Davis’ Mrs. Miller, in which the nun confronts the hard-working mother with her suspicions that something untoward happened between her boy and Hoffman’s Father Flynn. The scene starts inside and includes small talk. It advances outside as the conversation becomes increasingly less insinuating and more overt before finally reaching its crescendo. It’s difficult to thing of a mainstream filmmaker this side of Mike Leigh who would let a single scene play out over 15 movies, who would trust the words and, more crucially, the actors with holding audience attention. It’s Davis’ only scene in the movie, but she creates a whole character out of a single chat with a stranger. Even more interesting in that scene is watching Streep pass off control for 15 minutes, a gesture that lets Davis strut, but also softens a character would would otherwise be Nurse Ratched in a habit.
By not opening things up, Shanley concentrates on how much of the movie is just scenes in which two or three characters bounce insinuations off of each other. Allegations of sexual improprieties in the church have been the subject of so much filmed drama in recent years that the movie’s broad points didn’t interest me. The good stuff was in the dynamics between characters. How does an older nun relate to a novice? How does an older nun relate to a priest, to a monsignor to even an image of a pope? As a Jew, I got a kick out of that. The stuff about the liberalization of the Church, circa 1964? Meh.
Streep’s character is broad, but she plays it well. I preferred the more nuanced performances, particularly from Hoffman, perpetuates the work’s title by making impossible to know by the end what did or didn’t happen.
I also enjoyed Adams’ latest permutation on the Pollyanna. Her Sister James travels from innocence to unhappy knowledge to confusion in a believable manner. As different as her characters in “Junebug,” “Enchanted” and “Doubt” may be, they come from a similar place of wide-eyed openness and though Adams is great in this mode, I fear she’ll get locked in if she doesn’t keep a wary eye on future roles.
In the closing credits, Shanley thanks all of the Broadway stars of “Doubt,” a credit that in full probably must have been “Thanks to my original stars for not kicking up a fuss when I hired bigger stars in order to draw more people to this play and make more money.” I don’t know if “Doubt” is the great movie, but as a filmed play it will bring people to the material and the performances will leave them satisfied.