Tuesday, 10 February 2009

Doubt (2008)

Our three weapons are fear, surprise, ruthless efficiency! Aaaaand an almost fanatical devotion to the Pope...

The best ideas in the field of physics, like those in theatre, exist in the form of thought experiments. In both endeavours, the skilled author/auteur is primarily concerned with how a theory (about a facet of human nature, or the nature of the universe) would play out in its entirety, even if the experiment itself is impractical and cannot be performed.

Amongst the more infamous thought experiments in physics is the Schrödinger's little set-up involving a feline trapped in a black box, whose death ray is triggered by quantum principles. The solution to the experiment is at once logical and bizarre: the kitty is both alive and dead until you open the box.

Without being facetious, Doubt - itself an adaptation of a Pulitzer-winning play - can be savoured as a Schrödinger's cat of a play: liberal Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman, in an example of stunt casting) may or may not have molested a child studying in the school run by the parish in the Bronx. Or he could just be a nice Vatican II priest of the people.

Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep channelling Cruella de Vil and Miranda Priestly), the conservative principal who relishes putting the fear of Sister Aloysius in the minds of kids, is determined to bring the priest to account by any means necessary, despite the lack of evidence. She may or may not be a guardian who feels it's a lesser evil to err on the side of caution, especially when the child molestation is the issue. Or she could just be running a personal vendetta against her ideological foe.

The thought experiment of Doubt centres on the authorial decision to withhold the central 'fact' surrounding the epic test of wills, shouting matches, wistful monologues, and the contest for the hearts and minds of the parish by Flynn and Aloysius in the movie.

Whether or not a crime has occured, the playwright and director of the movie is more interested in how humans respond with doubt and certainty to situations that scream 'insufficient evidence' and 'response needed now!' How and why do some people react with indefensible and immovable certainty in the face of ambiguity (of course, Doubt is in part an oblique commentary on America's rush to invade Iraq and remove Saddam Hussein)? How and why do some people manage to operate with a healthy amount of doubt and humility?

The movie is best savoured upon the realisation that the themes of doubt and certainty work best only if the audience keep the Schrödingerian both/either logic in mind as they attempt to decode the story. In other words, the clash between Philip Seymour Hoffman and Meryl Streep works well if they can be seen as acting in two separate movies at once (crafty molester vs principled marm? crafty marm vs innocent priest?). And it works best if they can be seen as acting in THREE separate movies, the third being one that simultaneously suggests the existence of both possibilities.

Being more of a conceptual play, Doubt eventually demands more than what its principal actors could give - Hoffman and Streep appear to be inhabiting 2 different plays and not meeting each other in the middle, although they do their best to hone the ambiguity of the situation to a knife's edge.

Directorially, John Patrick Shanley fails to breathe cinematic life into his vision. Set pieces may appear contrived and stagey (lightning and thunder during shouting matches! telephones ringing in the middle of a tense stare-down!), while editing is unimaginative and conventional. The transition from stage to screen preserves the central thought experiment of the original play, but offers very little beyond that.