Daniel Sullivan on John Patrick Shanley’s ‘Doubt’

Film adaptation raises interesting questions

My wife and I had a dinner party recently and one of the subjects that came up was “Doubt,” the movie. I was fascinated that the same questions these people had after the play opened were still in the air after seeing the film: Is the priest guilty? What’s the evidence? What’s the evidence that he’s not? What does the last line refer to? The priest? God? These tantalizing questions are magnified by John Patrick Shanley in the film, new evidence is presented, and still we are kept just out of reach of the answer.

Though he uses argument and counterargument as he did in the play, Shanley is able here to use images that are both powerful and ambivalent at the same time —

single images that suggest both guilt and innocence. I’m thinking of an amazing sequence that takes place in the school corridor as students rush to class. The young student at the center of the storm (we never see him in the play) is upended by the school bully and the priest moves to comfort him. The boy cries and the priest holds him. The students rush by. You think, “If the priest were abusing him, he would never show this public an intimacy.” He holds the boy delicately in his arms. Is there something more going on there?

It’s remarkable that Shanley, the director, gave himself the freedom to rethink the evidence and more remarkable still that he has been able to so cunningly rebalance the argument. In turning plays into movies, many plays stay rooted to the stage, but here Shanley has managed to not only make the transition but to make it seem that it was really a movie all along. In this he is beautifully abetted by David Gropman’s design and Roger Deakins’ cinematography. Shanley gets all the details right but more importantly the details are all important exhibits in the gathering of evidence.

Tony-winner Daniel Sullivan directs the revival of “Accent on Youth,” to open April 29.

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