At first glance, Doubt gives every indication of being one of those annoying, bitchy, little star-turn confections the major studios churn out at this time of year, trolling for awards recognition with high-priced actors. In fact, from its trailer — featuring glowering nun Meryl Streep, affable priest Philip Seymour Hoffman, and naughty parochial school kids in their uniforms — it’s hard to tell for sure whether this is a serious drama or a burlesque comedy in religious wrapper. Could it be the ecclestiastical Roman Catholic version of The Devil Wears Prada? If Robert De Niro, Sean Penn, and Whoopi Goldberg could do it, why not Streep and Hoffman?
The opening twenty or thirty minutes of the film don’t offer much help. The Hoffman character, sleek and chubby Father Flynn, offering mass in his sparkling vestments, looks for all the world like a contestant at a drag queen beauty pageant. We’re not terribly surprised to learn that he has his eye on bashful little Donald Miller (played by Joseph Foster), the school’s lone black student. It’s only a matter of time, we fear, until Father Flynn, steam issuing from his chasuble, takes the low road to Boystown. Buckle your seatbelts.
But then something happens. Streep’s Sister Aloysius, the school’s domineering principal, bursts onto the scene in a shower of meteors and takes control of director John Patrick Shanley’s scenario. From thence forward, it’s only nominally Shanley’s (Moonstruck, Five Corners) semi-autobiographical memoir of the terrors of churchly education — the movie totally belongs to Streep.
It’s thrilling to see a pro like Streep step into an already wildly exaggerated role and then ramp it up a few notches just for the sheer hell of it. Grim, red-eyed, deathly pale Sister Aloysius may be the scariest nun of all time. Not only does she smack kids in the head and browbeat the other sisters at dinnertime, she makes a point of despising that newfangled invention, the ballpoint pen. In her ideal world, they’d all be using fountain pens. Most of all, she hates being upstaged by the liberal Father Flynn, who prefers to be everyone’s buddy rather than the avenging angel of a wrathful deity. Remember, this is the early ’60s. The first Catholic president has just been elected, racial barriers in the US are just beginning to crack, and child molestation by clergymen is a subject for whispered innuendo rather than front-page headlines. Suspicion alone is enough to bind a man to the stake.
A young, conscientious, kindly nun named Sister James (Amy Adams) admires Father Flynn’s approach with the students, but can’t help noticing that the priest takes an unusual, perhaps unhealthy, interest in the picked-on black student. Sister James makes the mistake of expressing her concerns to Sister Aloysius, who evidently has always resented the male hierarchy of the church, in which merry priests drink wine and tell jokes over dinner while the nuns cower silently in their cloister. A power struggle develops. Their climactic showdown in the principal’s office is one of the best things Shanley has ever written. Flynn has everything going for him — he’s articulate, knowledgeable, reassuringly rational, compassionate, and has the implicit backing of the church patriarchy — and yet he’s no match for the fiery sister. She has all the mystery and complexity of a typhoon.
Streep so dominates Doubt that it’s necessary to emphasize the subtle support she gets from Hoffman. The shadow of doubt falls over Father Flynn before it does Sister Aloysius, and he bears that burden convincingly. Adams, as dutiful Sister James, and Viola Davis, as Donald Miller’s exhausted mother (“It’s only until June,” she keeps insisting), ably play difficult parts with dubious moral shadings. It’s tempting to rationalize that creatures like Sister Aloysius no longer exist, but we suspect otherwise. She and the faulty father are refreshingly flawed human beings.
Hanna Schmitz, the antagonist of The Reader, is no mere “classroom Nazi” terrorizing the schoolchildren of the Bronx — she’s a former SS death camp guard trying to lead a quiet, inconspicuous life as a tram conductor in West Germany in the 1950s, until her equilibrium is upset by a young student named Michael Berg.
As beautifully, achingly portrayed by Kate Winslet (compare to the paint-by-numbers histrionics of Winslet’s role in the upcoming Revolutionary Road), Hanna Schmitz holds it all inside her. The only escape route for her emotions is through her eyes, and Winslet, in one of her best performances, writes volumes with her eyes, despite the fact that Schmitz is an illiterate working-class woman whose only delight, other than sex, is to be read to by her young lover (David Kross).
It would be easy to dismiss The Reader as the latest in a puzzling succession of recent World War II/Holocaust/Nazi movies, if it weren’t for the delicate tone of melancholy established by director Stephen Daldry (The Hours, Billy Elliott) and Winslet’s enigmatic portrait of unknowable guilt.
The Reader, adapted by playwright David Hare from the hit novel by German author Bernhard Schlink, is even more of a loaded proposition than Doubt‘s wrathful nun/touchy-feely padre story. As told in flashback from the point of view of the grown-up Michael Berg (Ralph Fiennes, skulking as usual), a lawyer with unfinished emotional business, it’s the secret history of the collective guilt of the German people, framed as the shameful memories of young Michael’s schoolboy fling with a mature woman with a horrible past. How was he to know she was a mass murderer? And why was he never able to get over Hanna, especially when surrounded by gorgeous blond schoolmates like Sophie (Vijessna Ferkic) and Marthe (Karoline Herfurth)? Such are the mysteries of sex. Combined with evil and salted with the moral investigations of people such as Professor Rohl at Heidelberg (veteran actor Bruno Ganz), Michael’s youthful transgressions, given time, assume Wagnerian heights.
But none of that takes anything away from Winslet’s performance. Using as few words as possible — she calls Michael “kid,” like Dietrich would — she fashions Hanna as the most banal and mundane of evildoers, someone so docile and resigned to her fate that she neglects to pass the blame to save her own life at her war crimes trial. Perhaps she’s just tired of running. There’s a warning implicit in the character of Hanna Schmitz, who locked 300 wretched inmates in a burning church and allowed them to die. When asked point blank what she had learned from her experiences, she replies: “I’ve learned to read.”