Doubt – Truth vs Conscience

Doubt-etbscreenwritingThe movie Doubt, written and directed by John Patrick Shanley, has an emotional disconnect at its core– in the most unsuccessful sense of the word. Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep) is a Power of Conscience character at the center of a Power of Truth story. She is the wrong protagonist for the film and this mistake fatally skews and distorts the story’s emotional focus. It makes the ending feel false (or as described by various critics– “a cop out”). Here’s what went wrong and why.

Meryl Streep plays a classic Power of Conscience protagonist. In all the reviews and press information her character is described variously as: stern, rigid, inflexible, intimidating, judgmental, authoritarian, single-minded, strict, moralistic, harsh, punitive and punishing. Early in the film, she glares at children whispering, fidgeting, slumping or snoozing in Mass and admonishes them with a variety of hisses and thumps on the head or raps on the knuckles. She describes herself a number of times in the movie as “certain” or having “absolute certainty.”

Power of Conscience ETB ScreenwritingPower of Conscience characters see something and immediately “know” if it is right or wrong. If they witness an action or activity they view as improper, immoral or corrupt and they are compelled to act. These characters simply cannot stand by or be silent in the face of perceived injustice or wrong-doing. Inspector Javert, in Les Miserables is another example of a hardened, unforgiving and unrelenting Power of Conscience character in pursuit of a “wrong-doer.” Less dark versions of this Character Type in religious life are Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons and Thomas Becket in Becket. Both men defy a king whose actions they judged as immoral or improper. Both men died as a result.

Suspicion or doubt, by their nature are at the heart of a Power of Truth story. The Story Questions in a Power of Truth film are: Who can I trust? What is really going on here? Did I really see what I thought I saw? Who is my ally and who is my enemy? When does loyalty look like betrayal? When does betrayal look like loyalty? How can I be really certain of anything? What does it all mean?

None of these questions occur to Sister Aloysius. She never doubts her own judgment. She is unwavering in her pursuit of what she “knows” must be the corruption at the heart of Father Flynn’s actions. She is single-minded and sure of herself. She is absolutely determined to root out wrong-doing wherever and however it rears its head in her school.

Sister James (Amy Adams) is the person plagued and tormented by each of these Power of Truth questions. She is torn and doesn’t know what to believe. It is very difficult to suspect someone you genuinely like and admire of a horrible act. Sister James likes and respects the warm charismatic Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the parish priest at the center of the controversy. The pedophilia scandal in the Catholic Church turned on the difficulty those in authority had in believing that competent, well-respected and well-liked priests could also be bad men with deeply criminal impulses.

Power of Truth ETB ScreenwritingIf the story is about really is about doubt, then the ages and positions of the nuns should have been reversed. Sister James should have been the older school principal and protagonist. Sister Aloysius should have been a younger gung-ho Power of Conscience nun. If Sister James had been goaded into accusing Father Flynn, despite her uncertainty and doubt, then it would be entirely credible that she would be tormented about whether or not she did the right thing.

A Power of Conscience character cannot be the protagonist of a Power of Truth film without causing an emotional disconnect. That’s why the ending of the film feels so contrived and false. We never quite believe that Sister Aloysius, who is so certain in all things, would inexplicably dissolve into tears of doubt and remorse once she had accomplished her goal– removing a man she believed to be corrupt from her school.

If this is Power of Conscience film then the central issue is not doubt, it is the dangers of executing a God-like judgment of others. If the harsh unyielding Sister Aloyius is the protagonist, then her character should have been proven wrong with horrible results. Her hard, unrelenting, moral certainty should have been her tragic downfall.

Wesley Morris writing in The Boston Globe about the film says: “…The truth is that Sister Aloysius’s steely single-mindedness is actually quite simple, which is why the movie’s (and the play’s) abrupt final scene is a cop-out.”

1 Comment

  1. Reply adrian lunney 16th September 2010

    Hi Laurie,

    Well – I’m doing a little catching up with your posts & I agree with em all except this one. I thought that the central knife-edge battle between Sr Aloysius and the priest was handled exceptionally well & the denouement also.

    I saw the film once 18 months ago and certain details leap back into focus now.

    Firstly, regardless of the schemata for her or his character or the younger nun – the dramatic way in which she calls his bluff – lies in fact to do so – and then has him guilty and on the back foot – is the central sequence on which the film stands or falls. I guess that most of the play/film is organised around that cat and mouse game. For my money it’s a great scene and up until then I would say that most neutral audiences are in doubt. Our Doubt is the subject of the film.

    There’s nothing that simple about the (correct) intuition of the older nun and the way she goes about catching the clever priest. Her current job – we are given to know – is held in sacrifice to a life she once had – and then lost – she was married – she had another life in the past etc etc. There’s an internal tension always there: The idea of her own sense of doubt – revealed in a sob at the end – well, ok, it’s a bit corny – but it’s dramatic and it’s fitting and without it – well I guess Maggie Smith would have played that part – po faced to the end.

    As I recall – one of John Shanley’s credits dedicates the film to the memory of the younger naive nun who was prepared to believe the priest right to the end. That’s interesting isn’t it? Quite a compassionate note. Shanley seems to like (Moonstruck) having younger woman/older woman stories going in parallel. And his period film itself seems to be a mourning of the rising and naive 60’s sunshine that will hide all kinds of abuse under cover of daylight while the kindnesses of actual truth telling and reality melt into the shadows

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