A Film by John Patrick Shanley
Screenplay adapted from his original stage play
The new film from award-winning playwright John Patrick Shanley, who also adapted the screenplay from his original stage version, is a thoughtful, provocative story brought to life by an outstanding cast who clearly bring out the best in one another. It illustrates the collaborative nature of film, where a first-time director like Shanley can be lifted above the few mis-steps he makes by the professionalism and expertise of his cast and crew.
This is not to take anything away from Shanley. A capable cast and crew can as easily ruin a film, if they aren't encouraged and guided by their director to work effectively together and if they aren't invested in the project by an espirit it is the directors job to develop.
Shanley has clearly respected his cast and crew, given them room to work together, and earned their respect. The coherence and integrity of the film indicates that Shanley has been able to communicate his vision to the crew, who have understood and rendered it vividly. To inspire this kind of collaboration is in itself a significant achievement for a first time director.
The story is based in Shanley's remembrances of his own childhood growing up in Catholic schools. The atmosphere of the time and that system with nuns as teachers and administrators of the Parish Schools is faithfully reproduced. But this is not the playful nostalgia of Nunsense, or the darkly satirical slant of Christopher Durang's Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You. It's a serious consideration, in the context of that time and place, of deep questions about faith, trust and responsibility.
The play centers around Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep), principal of a Catholic elementary school, and Father Flynn (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), the parish priest. They are observed by Sister James (Amy Adams), an idealistic and enthusiastic young nun in her first teaching assignment, who is torn between their two points of view.
Early in the story, the repressed, officious, dogmatic Sister Aloysius begins to suspect that there is something wrong in the relationship developing between Father Flynn and one of the eighth graders, Donald Miller, the school's first African-American pupil. It is clear that she doesn't like Father Flynn on principle. While she is tough and strict with the children, he is playful and sympathetic. While she is distant and stiffly formal, he is warm and casual.
When she plants the seed of her suspicions in the minds of her fellow nuns, Sister James is dismayed to observe what she fears may be evidence that those suspicions are justified. When she shares her observations with Siste Aloysius, the latter apparently considers her concerns unequivocally confirmed. She arranges a confrontation with Father Flynn - with Sister James present as a "third party," as Catholic protocols require in a meeting that involves a man and a woman.
Father Flynn explains his behavior as innocent, to the satisfaction of Sister James, but not that of Sister Aloysius. He tries to invoke his authority as a priest to silence her, but she resists, although she admits that his explanation made sense, and that she has nothing to prove her case except her own conviction.
The narrative unspools through the push and pull on Sister James, now sympathetically listening to Father Flynn's story, now tested by Sister Aloyisus's ability to reawaken her doubts. It is from this tension between doubt and trust - and between doubt and faith - that the story draws its emotional energy.
I had the pleasure of seeing an excellent production of the stage-play at the Capital Repertory Theater in Albany last fall. It made an interesting contrast to the film version that illuminated some of the difficulties and advantages for Shanley in adapting the play for film.
The stage version is basically a three-character piece, with a single additional cameo. As staged by Cap Rep, it was played out on a single set that represented several different locations. In moving to the more "realistic" setting of film, Shanley was able to evoke the atmosphere of 1950s era Catholic education much more vividly. But the detail of the film also focused the story more precisely on the individuals involved (in the stage version, the boy in question doesn't even appear), and in doing so lost some of its mythic quality.
Because of the stronger presence of the characters in the film, it is much more difficult for Shanley to maintain the ambivalent balance of tension that was the centerpiece of the Cap Rep production. In the stage version, characters' facial expressions are much more difficult to read and much of the story - such as the boy's reaction - are presented by conflicting third party descriptions, which are subject to question, rather the audience's ability to see his face and draw their own conclusion.
Thus the ability of film to enter more intimately and "realistically" into the story is actually something of a drawback in a film that is about uncertainty and relies on ambiguity and equivocation to create involvement and suspense in the audience. At the same time, the films immediacy allows us to enter much more powerfully into the world the characters inhabit, and into their emotional struggles.
Taken on its own merits alone, as I said above, the film succeeds very well indeed, based in no small part on the outstanding work of the cast. Meryl Streep may have given a career-best performance here - it is certainly one of her two or three best. She embodies Sister Aloysius and her fears and concerns both as a "model" of repression, authoritarianism and dogmatism, and as a frightened, uncertain and fragile individual. She is both empowered and victimized by the vehemence of her dedication to her vocation. She works well, as she always does, with the other actors, helping to bring out the best in them.
Phillip Seymour Hoffman brings Father Flynn to life with an idealistic, sympathetic tone that yet is obviously not invulnerable to temptations, at least to vanity and the need to be admired, if not to more serious flaws. Hoffman does a masterful job - much helped by careful editing - of making it difficult to come to any firm conclusion about the deepest levels of Father Flynn's character.
Amy Adams - in a role that is a striking contrast to her recent work in Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day - plays Sister James as the wide-eyed innocent you would expect a young nun to be. She serves as an excellent foil for the conflicting points-of-view and her uncertainty becomes emblematic of that of the audience. Yet she never loses sight of the living human being her character is, and the profound emotional effects this situation has on her.
Viola Davis plays Mrs. Miller, the boy's mother. Her character introduces an additional layer of complexity to the ethical questions involved that is informed by the powerful pragmatism of maternal love. Davis puts enormous heart into her few minutes of screen time, creating a context and background for Donald - and by implication, for those whose struggle focuses on him - that adds a great deal to the story's impact.
I suggest that the Academy Awards should introduce a new category (as the Emmys have done), for "Best Performance by an Ensemble Cast." If there were such a category, this cast should surely be nominated, and such recognition would be much fairer and more accurate than singling out any of their performances individually (as good as they are), since each depends so heavily on the others.
The production values are fine. The sets and production design are evocative and accurate. The principle locations in which they filmed seem untouched by the intervening decades. The music is used judiciously and sparingly, with the result that it is effective in creating or adding to little emotional moments.
The camera-work is generally very good, although Shanley gets a little cute from time to time with the kinds of angle shots made popular by the German Expressionists and favored by Alfred Hitchcock. His impulse is, I think, a good one - to give a sense of the confusion, imbalance and "loss of perspective" in the characters' lives - but a little of this kind of thing goes a long way, and Shanley doesn't yet have the judgment - perhaps because of his theatrical background as well as his inexperience - to understand how in film understatement often works best.
But such tyro misjudgments are minor considerations in a film this good. Like the original play, it treats important, timely issues in a serious and adult way and gives its audience credit for the intelligence and thoughtfulness to engage and confront the difficult questions it raises. That alone is worth the price of admission, and when you add on bravura performances by actors of the caliber of Streep and Hoffman, you have a rewarding movie experience.
That's my take on it. What's yours?