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Thursday, January 01, 2009

Movie Review

Dir. John Patrick Shanley

Film adaptations of stage plays are as old as film itself. While it may seem counter-intuitive, the two mediums are not as closely related as one might think. Rather, theater is only one of the art forms which are used to create a movie. Doubt showcases the best and worst of adapting a stage play, and perhaps it would have been wiser to allow someone else than Shanley, who's only prior film was Joe Versus the Volcano.

Shanley's play is brilliant, well deserving of its Pulitzer prize. It takes on a number of converging, complex, and challenging issues, in a subdued and subtle way. It's a rare piece of work which speaks as loudly and brilliantly through its subtext as its language. If only I could say the same about Shanley's directing of the film this would have been a great film.

The three principle characters are played by three of our finest actors: Hoffman, Streep, and Adams. Streep once again displays her uncanny ability with accents, nailing not only the dialect of a specific location but also of a time period. Hoffman is as internally intense as ever, and Adams shows off a great deal of versatility, acting both as foil and complex agent of action in her own right.

Shanley has visible trouble with consistency in his film; of tone, of acting, and of presentation. The acting is great, but it isn't given the sort of orchestration which the script would dictate. As Hoffman and Streep square off in the films central scene, they don't exactly over-act, but rather it appears, especially in Hoffman's facial expressions, that they are reacting to a direction which isn't consistent with the previous or following scenes, or with the characters they play. It also appears that Shanley decided to err on the side of making his adaptation look more cinematic than stagy.

Noteworthy is the impatient editing, the film cuts too much in its conversations, not allowing the perfomrances to breath. The askew camera angles are far too much, and the film seems to be shot nearly entirely in medium shots, not allowing either the contemplative depth of field shot or the intensity of the close-up (living legend Roger Deakins seems underused here except for a few rather impressive displays of Rembrandt inspired lighting). Perhaps most unfortunate of all is the didactic score by the typically amazing Howard Shore which seems to subvert the film's uncertainty and takes some parts of the film, the ending especially, to levels of camp; the final scene wouldn't be out of place in a Douglas Sirk film; which wouldn't have been a problem had the rest of the film been made in a similar tone (it seems to be influenced by Bergman's television work, but doesn't have the same patience with its material or feel adventurous enough to try and reveal any of the theatrical apparatus).

Thematically and intellectually the film works despite its formal flaws, and the acting itself recommends the film. It's nice to see a film that deals with the inner-politics of religion, and in a sense this is more of a film about politics (gender, positional, class) than about faith. Though it does have rather striking moments contemplating retributive justice. All said, aside from seeing Streep, Hoffman, and Adams chewing the scenery, one would probably be better served catching the stage play.

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