DOUBT – Blu-ray review

Based on the Tony Award-winning off-Broadway play “Doubt: A Parable,” John Patrick Shanley’s film adaptation of his stage version is really enhanced by Blu-ray’s clarity and 1080p High Resolution. It’s a nuanced film, a stagey one that offers mostly the three main characters in dramatic discussions, in which what remains unspoken is much louder than what is said. The startling detail of Blu-ray makes it feel as if you a front-row seat at the Manhattan Theatre Club and watching a guest performance by Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Amy Adams.

As in the play, the film’s cat-and-mouse plot is set in motion when a new and inexperienced teacher at the St. Nicholas Church School in the Bronx, circa 1964–Sister James (Adams)–comes to the super-strict principal of the school, Sister Aloysius (Streep), with concerns about the parish priest, Father Flynn (Hoffman). He’s been giving extra attention to the school’s only black student, a young boy named Donald Miller (Joseph Foster). As the tagline says, “There is no evidence. There are no witnesses. But for one, there is no doubt.”

Now, in the world of nuance, that “one” is supposed to be split across both sisters, but after initially bringing concerns about possible sexual contact between the boy and Father Flynn, young Sister James is filled with doubts. But not Sister Aloysius. Maybe she’s seen this or suspected this before, in a case that happened prior to Donald’s arrival. Maybe she just doesn’t like this relatively new Father Flynn because, as the dialogue reveals, they don’t see eye-to-eye or even eye-to-chest on big issues of doctrine and the handling of their young charges. Maybe she resents the structure of the church which undermines her own authority as principal, with the church and its priests technically over her and the school. Or maybe she’s just a crusty old nun who’s got an itchy trigger finger, ready to grab a ruler and rap anyone on the knuckles, even if it’s the parish priest.

You wouldn’t think that a screenplay that was mostly dialogue involving this simple premise could be so riveting, but it is, and it’s because the writing is sharp and intelligent, the performances are packed with subtleties and depth, and a tone hangs over the entire production that helps sustain the tension–the kind of feeling you get when you’re summoned to the principal’s office and you’re not sure what you did, or if you’re in trouble. I still get that feeling when I’m driving down the freeway and see a cop car, even though I’m driving the speed limit. And it’s here in spades. The lighting and cinematography really add to that feeling as well, with a slightly overcast look to the whole thing, as if a storm is brewing (and of course, it is).

But how much “doubt” the viewer has will depend upon whatever baggage you bring to the film. If you’ve got a negative feeling about priests and all the scandals that have rocked the Catholic church, you probably won’t have much doubt. If you’re concerned with due process you’ll see so little here that you’ll probably side with the accused. But if you’re like Sister James–and one suspects that Shanley hopes most viewers are–you’ll be bewitched, bothered, and bewildered by this morality play, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2005.

Speaking of doubt, though, I found myself wondering how in the world someone who could write a Pulitzer Prize-winning play and this intelligent screenplay could also have written “Joe Versus the Volcano” (his first and only other directorial effort). That should give aspiring writers all sorts of hope.

So is Natalie Portman kicking herself now for turning down the role of Sister James? Maybe. But it’s hard to imagine anyone doing naiveté better than Adams. And while Viola Davis was only in two scenes as Mrs. Miller, she earned a Best Supporting Actress nomination for a role that Oprah Winfrey reportedly lobbied for. She probably would like to kick the director.

“Doubt” was transferred to disc using an AVC/MPEG-4 transfer, and it appears to be a good one. Black levels bring out the detail in scenes that could have looked drab or gray, and the level of detail is wonderfully precise and clear. Skintones are natural looking, and while there isn’t as much visual “pop” to this as on some of the better Blu-rays, Shanley went for a look, and Blu-ray sustains it. “Doubt” is presented in 1.85:1 aspect ratio.

The featured soundtrack is an English DTS-HD 5.1 (48kHz/24-bit), with an additional audio option in French Dolby Digital 5.1 and subtitles in English SDH and Spanish. The play demanded a quiet house so you could almost hear the characters breathe, and the DTS-HD soundtrack delivers a clean and precise audio that picks up all of the quiet sounds of “Doubt” that are used to help construct and maintain the tension. Footsteps in corridors echo with nail-biting clarity.

There’s a very nice package of bonus features included, though this is just a one-disc release. The one I enjoyed the most was “The Cast of ‘Doubt’,” which, while only 14 minutes long, featured the four main actors in a sit-down panel discussion with Dave Karger of “Entertainment Weekly.” In this feature, you learn as much about the actors’ personalities as you do about the characters they play, and their ideas about how the film differed from the stage version. But the longer feature is also above-average. “From Stage to Screen” runs roughly 20 minutes and features Shanley talking about his own life story and revealing how he consulted his childhood teachers and used childhood schoolmates as extras. There’s some good stuff here.

The audio commentary is a nostalgic one, with Shanley going down memory lane and talking about how he created characters based on real people he knew. It’s more a writer’s commentary than a director’s commentary, with the emphasis on the script and its relation to Shanley’s life. Don’t look for much in the way of behind-the-scenes anecdotes or technical revelations, because they’re not here.

Two very brief bonus features round out the extras: an under five-minute clip in which Shanley discusses the score with composer Howard Shore, who isolates moments and plays them without dialogue or ambient sound, and a six-minute clip of “Sisters of Charity” in which Shanley and Streep talk about the real order before we see interviews with four real sisters who talk about their daily routines and the changes they’ve seen in the church.

Bottom Line:
As the sticker proclaims, “Doubt” appeared on over 50 Top 10 lists, and there’s little fault to be found in the screenplay, direction, staging, or performances. If it’s less than a perfect film, it’s only because there may not be as much “doubt” for some as for others.