By Millie Fry
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This article is over 15 years, 2 months old
Director: John Patrick Shanley; Release date: 6 February
Issue 333

1964 was a volatile year in the US. President John F Kennedy had been assassinated the year before, and there was a new growing air of questioning long established institutions such as the Catholic church. The civil rights movement had yet to explode onto the scene, but nevertheless racial integration in schools was taking its first tremulous, tension-ridden steps.

Considering all this, perhaps the film’s title could not have been better chosen. As a reflection and critique of a working class community in the Bronx in 1964, a story centred round the Saint Nicholas parish, director John Patrick Shanley weaves intricately complex issues, namely race and the hierarchical nature of the Catholic church. The result is an incredibly gripping, emotional knock of a film, one that almost reduced me to tears.

Doubt starts with a sermon from the parish priest Father Flynn (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman), who seems to contradict any preconceived judgments of the conservatism of the Catholic church, especially at that time, with his friendly and relaxed relationship with the parishioners. This is even more acute in comparison to the incredibly stern and intimidating principal of the parish school, Sister Aloysius (played by Meryl Streep), whose draconian and arbitrary rules keep both the students and the other nuns in complete submission.

We are also introduced to Sister James, whose youth and enthusiasm for teaching history to her students also serve to emphasise the differences between them. However, as the story unfolds, so do the different characters themselves, and I found my respect for the character of Sister Aloysius growing.

When a suspicion forms in her mind that the first black student to attend the school, Donald Miller, played by Joseph Foster II, is receiving inappropriate attention from Father Flynn, the events that follow are a deeply emotional, albeit somewhat detached, account of the changing of the times. As Sister Aloysius struggles to prove her fears, while also grappling with the strict procedures of communication between the nuns and priests of the church, her strength and compassion shine through, completely humanising her in the process. Streep plays the character with a conviction that electrifies the dynamic between Father Flynn and Sister Aloysius, showing the duality of the nature of many people of the church, the human kindness that so often gives birth to severity.

This film is troubling as it illustrates the depths to which prejudice and bigotry can affect people’s lives. Although it doesn’t necessarily bring anything new to the table in terms of the history of social and political change, it refreshes the ways in which we could perceive these changes.

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