My current Top 5

My current Top 5

4/26/2010

Best Actress 2008: Meryl Streep in "Doubt"

Right at the beginning of Doubt, Father Brendan Flynn asks during his mass: “What do you do when you’re not sure?” This will be the theme of the movie that follows this scene – a story about characters that aren’t sure of their own intentions and actions but who act nonetheless.

The main character of the story is also introduced during this mass. The viewer sees the back of a woman, a nun. She stands up during the mass and slowly walks along the aisle to silence some talking children. The way they all immediately stop talking and sit up straight the moment she appears show that this nun is not a woman to joke around with.

This strict, unforgiving and self-righteous nun, Sister Aloysius Beauvier, is played by Meryl Streep who received her fifteenth Oscar nominations for her performance. Sister Aloysius is a woman who actually has no doubt – she is certain about her instincts and believes in her own righteousness. The movie Doubt could actually also be called ‘Suspicion’ because it is the suspicion of Sister Aloysius that sets the action of the movie and provides the moral dilemma of the story – the suspicion, that Father Flynn might sexually abuse one of his altar boys.

Doubt never answers this question. The whole movie is based on suspicion, assumption and accusations and shows the battle between Sister Aloysius and Father Flynn who both defend their own point-of-views (she is sure that he abused the boy and he vehement denies it). The movie leaves it up to the viewers to decide for themselves who is saying the truth. The only character who really has doubts is Sister James (played by Amy Adams) who finds herself in the middle between Father Flynn and Sister Aloysius.

Meryl Streep is obviously having fun with this part that gives her the opportunity to chew the scenery and play a villain with all the well-known ingredients – an intimidating voice, a mouth that never smiles and slitted eyes that seem to see everything. But at the same time Meryl Streep realizes that Sister Aloysius isn’t a villain because it is never clear if her instincts are right and Father Flynn really committed a crime. Sister Aloysius is a very strong and self-confident character who, once she is convinced that she is right, sets out to do everything in her power to expose Father Flynn and remove him from his position.

The character of Sister Aloysius is another one of the movie’s unanswered questions. Neither the script nor Meryl Streep’s characterization show her true intentions. Is she really only acting on the behalf of the boy who might have been molested or is it her personal dislike for Father Flynn, who represents modernization while she is holding on to old traditions, that makes her want to destroy him? Sister Aloysius is unlikable in her dominance but does that make her wrong? The fact that Sister Aloysius is such an unpleasant woman seems to make it easy to point the finger at her and blame her as an evil woman who wants to destroy Father Flynn’s reputation – but this poses the question: Is she doing it for the right reason (thinking that he molested the boy) or is she doing it for the wrong reason (trying to get Father Flynn away for personal reasons)? Or is it a combination or something completely different? And does it even matter as long as she achieves the goal to remove an evil man from his position? But what if she is wrong with her accusations? As said before, the fact that Sister Aloysius is an unlikable woman makes it easy to side with Father Flynn – but how would the viewer see the situation if Sister Aloysius was a very nice and charming young nun (like Sister James)? Would the viewer see things differently then? In some ways, Doubt shows that it’s easy to judge people based on how they are and how they behave but in this case, it’s only the question ‘What do they do?’ that’s important. Father Flynn is nice and charming but he may have abused a little boy. Sister Aloysius seems evil and dangerous but she wants to stop him. Based on their actions, it should be easy to side with the Sister but their characters create the tension and ambiguity.

Meryl Streep perfectly understood this theme of the movie and the symbolic part of Sister Aloysius and as a consequence, does her best to show the hard, bitter and cynical side of her character. At the beginning, Meryl Streep unfortunately overdoes her characterization. When she shouts at a group of children, she seems rather like a military leader and her attempt to create a villain-like character is too exaggerated – at some point, one expects her to twirl her moustache or to get on her broom and command her army of flying monkeys. But still, these scenes show the power and intimidation that Sister Aloysius has over the pupils and that this is something that’s normal for her. Sister Aloysius is a product of a different time and Meryl Streep understands this.

What works so well in her characterization is the fact that she sometimes allows Sister Aloysius to be more than just a stereotype and shows more layers behind her stern façade. The script also provides various scenes for Meryl Streep to show that Sister Aloysius is not a monster which comes mostly across in her help for an older nun who is slowly going blind.

Meryl Streep is also confident enough in her own performance to mix her part with a sense of dry humor that might have appeared misplaced but she knows how to handle it without losing the atmosphere of the movie. In general, a lot of other actresses might have failed with the tasks of the screenplay and Stanley’s rather misplaced direction that confuses angular camera positions with artistry, but Meryl Streep is too much of a real pro to not know what she is doing and what works. Doubt is no masterpiece but an over-the-top camp fest but within this, the over-the-top performances by Streep and Hoffman surely work. When they finally face each other in her office and shout and scream at each other, the scene is as overdone as it could possibly get but both actors know how to impress nonetheless. Meryl Streep knows when to let go of the emotional reservations her character had so far and raise her voice and fight an open fight.

Overall, Doubt is a movie that could have been much better and is filled with performances that served their purpose but are often too over-the-top. Even though Meryl Streep gets to play the juicy part in Doubt, her character itself is sometimes rather one-dimensional because, as mentioned before, the viewer sees no doubt in her, only suspicion. Amy Adam’s inner conflict is often much more interesting to watch. And because Meryl Streep so fiercely showed Sister Aloysius’s conviction, her final scene in the movie is among the worst in her entire career since it comes too sudden and also because the quality of Meryl Streep’s acting suddenly drops dramatically.

Still, Meryl Streep was able to find a human core in her stereotypical character and went far beyond the expectations of the script. For this, she gets

12 comments:

Louis Morgan said...

I basically agree with you. I don't think she went as over the top as you do, but I agree she still did. Your right about the movie, and her last scene is poorly done.

Fritz said...

So, we almost agree! :-)
How many stars would you give her?

Louis Morgan said...

I suppose our scales are slightly different since you include all performances ever, and I only include nominated performances, but probably 4.

Sage Slowdive said...

Oh my goodness, Fritz, this was BRILLIANTLY written.

I liked Doubt more then I thought I would, but I really didn't like how Meryl handled the ending --- won't spoil it for those who haven't seen it.

Fritz said...

Wow, thanks a lot, Sage! It's always nice to get such positive feedback! :-)

I also liked the movie a lot more than I thought. I hear such negative things about it and the performances (especially Amy Adams whom I totally loved) that I thought I would hate it but I really enjoyed it despite its flaws.

joe burns said...

I really liked this movie! But I think Meryl gets a little too much praise. She's good, but not one of her best. Still, much better then Julie And Julia. Three stars from me.

Malcolm said...

I loved the film. Meryl nailed Sister Aloysius for me.

An easy 5 for me. Not counting her past nominations.

Zephyr said...

I agree with Sage, as perfectly written as always!! However, I really enjoyed this film and loved Meryl Streep in this, as well as the rest of the cast. I thought it to be one of the most intelligent films that I have seen recently.

Fritz said...

Thanks, Zephyr! I agree that the cast was very strong!

Zephyr said...

Looking forward to your review of Jolie. I really do not rate her highly, but will be interesting to hear your view!!

brandz said...

the ending to this movie was perfect. the best ending to a movie in many, many years. not tidy at all, like life. Meryl Streep and Amy Adams handle this final scene perfectly.

Rebecca Reddoch said...

I think Sis Alouysious or however you spell it, is a very accurate portrayal of a woman who took seriously the protection of her charges within a system which made her a second class citizen by virtue of her gender. For example, the nun and priest could not be alone in a room together without a 3rd party present. And she was the one responsible for providing the "chaperone" yet the priest had no such concern about being alone with a far more vulnerable child. Predators count on no one questioning them and here is the tell...Do they respond to accusations with an apology and a plan to avoid such situations to begin with? Do they say..."yes, it is wise to have a 3rd party when a I am alone with a child."? Also, which is more important, a grown man's reputation or a child's safety? Most men would say...a man's rep. That is their bias. We women defer to them so often we at times buy that crap, but the power imbalance is such that the child's safety should be utmost. You don't agree? Who would you trust your 7 year old boy with? I trust my children with Sis A, any day of the week. Not with that priest. The implicit psych cost of harm is just too high even with a small likelihood of molestation. Oh, I hurt his feelings...too bad. The same goes for wealthy famous people who invite children to sleep over...Have their parents in the room to chaparone. How hard is that? Solves so many issues. Doubt is about power imbalance and choices we make to proctect the less powerful.