Meryl Streep: ‘Our Lady of the Accents’

With its lemon-sucking overacting and lack of flair, Doubt misses an opportunity for high Catholic melodrama.

Mark Adnum

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Have no Doubt: as the lemon-sucking, bonnet-shackled Sister Aloysius Beauvier, the godly dragon lady of St Nicholas Catholic School in the Bronx, Meryl Streep delivers the worst performance of her career. Carving the ham thicker than Al Pacino ever dared, America’s pre-eminent screen actress will shock fans with scene after scene of schlocky overacting that wouldn’t be out of place at a dinner theatre.

Pauline Kael dubbed Streep ‘Our Lady of the Accents’ and Katharine Hepburn couldn’t bear to watch her, saying ‘click, click, click’ in reference to the wheels she saw, ever-turning inside Streep’s head. Criticisms like these – that Streep is not really a human but a well-disguised acting machine that spits out one highly technical but utterly soulless performance after the next – are bound to resurface in the wake of Doubt, where the Streep rolls out a creaky carousel of contrived pauses and choreographed mannerisms that would have been too much even for C-3PO, or Marcel Marceau. Widening and flashing her eyes more times than Bette Davis did in her entire career, and showing off the emotional and intellectual multi-dimensionality of a communion wafer, Streep crafts a uninterestingly cranky daughter of God who never seems to have gotten over her childhood dreams of becoming an actress.

Streep’s dreadful supernunny initiates mortal combat with Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) after dopey Sister James (Amy Adams) sniffles and wipes her nose throughout an ambiguous report that she has seen the priest acting improperly in the rectory with Donald Miller, the school’s sole black student (the film is set in 1964). With no proof, but a very heavy (battle)axe to grind, Sister Aloysius pursues Father Flynn relentlessly. Gnashing her teeth and seemingly in league with the supernatural (on two occasions lightbulbs pop right on time to underscore a point she’s making), the dried-up old witch happily drags Donald’s working-class mother (Viola Davis) into the fray and blackmails her with the threat of Donald’s expulsion from the school. Oh, God!

In other words, the set-up of Doubt promised a deliciously bitchy treat along the lines of Notes of a Scandal or even something transcendent like One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest but, alas, it isn’t to be – and Streep’s hammy theatrics aren’t the only problem.

John Patrick Shanley, who won an Oscar for his Moonstruck screenplay and a Pulitzer Prize for Doubt‘s original incarnation as a stageplay, is a limited director. Before this, Shanley had only directed one other film (Joe Versus the Volcano in 1990) but still, his lack of flair and vision in realising Doubt is really surprising. The film suffers from a total absence of visual interest, which is astonishing considering the potential of all that Catholic iconography crammed into an angsty, wintry American setting – remember a film called The Exorcist?

The few times Doubt‘s characters are permitted to step off the stage, sorry, step outside for an exterior scene, all we see is some alabaster statuary and a few fluttering leaves. Inside, St Nicholas is made to look as boring and drab as possible, but Shanley throws in a couple of completely incongruous, crazy camera angles in a (vain) effort to keep us on our toes.

Promising thematic branches are nipped in the bud, such as the claim from Mrs Miller that a sensitive, lonely young gay kid like her son may actually benefit from and be nourished by a sexual relationship with an attentive older man. This is a really interesting, meaty idea but it’s buried by Viola Davis’ teary dialogue delivery and more of Streep’s barky mark-hitting, in a brief and melodramatic scene that anyone who’s seen the trailer to Doubt will already know off by heart.

There’s a thread of gender vengeance here somewhere too, with Streep standing up for every capable hardworking nun who has to play second fiddle to her not-always competent male colleagues who nevertheless get to rule the roost church-wide. Why shouldn’t she take a scalp or two in an ongoing war she can’t get out of it, but is never going to be able to win? Great idea – but Sister Aloysius’ occasional collapses into tears and her drippy coven of too old or too young nuns undermine it left, right and centre.

And speaking of drippy nuns, what of Sister James, the mousy troublemaker who sets the whole witch-hunt in motion? I can’t even remember what her final scene was much less whether or not she had a second thought about jumping to conclusions in the first place.

Apparently, Shanley only told the actor playing Father Flynn whether or not he had actually molested Donald Miller – something he did when Doubt was on Broadway. It’s a shame he had to be so secretive with the audience, too.

Mark Adnum is a writer on film based in Australia and editor of Outrate.

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