First published on 24 Jan 2009. Updated on 10 Apr 2009.
Two Hollywood titans lock horns in this tense and teasingly ambiguous
chamber drama that asks us to reflect on a series of weighty issues: the potential for religion to adapt to the modern world, the
layers of meaning that can be read into a supposedly benign bodily
gesture and, most importantly, whether absolute certainty can ever be
Set amid the crumbling brownstones of 1960s Brooklyn, the film stars Meryl Streep– in a complete U-turn from her bubbly, devil-may-care turn in Mamma
Mia!– as the domineering and irascible Sister Aloysius,
headmistress of a Catholic school that she runs with an iron fist.
Father Flynn, beautifully played by the ever-reliable ,
is the charismatic pastor of the adjoining church who also happens to
be Aloysius's superior.
The pair's differing ideologies – hers
traditional, his progressive – mean that they rarely see eye-to-eye on
clerical/administrative matters, but their relationship takes a turn
for the worse when Aloysius hears from one of the school staff (a timid Amy Adams)
that Flynn has been giving special attention to one of the pupils, a
black child named Donald Miller. This is the catalyst for Aloysius's
bull-headed attack on Flynn. She quickly accuses him of sexual assault
on the boy, even though she doesn't have a shred of concrete evidence
to back her case.
Writer/director John Patrick Shanley, smoothly adapting his own theatre production for the screen, paints the
drama in oppressive wintery tones and is skillful in keeping audience
expectation wide open and obvious character allegiances at arm's length.
In lesser hands the subtleties of the original play and the complex
ideas that it deals with could be lost to something as trivial as a
careless facial tick, a mistimed line of dialogue or a
characterisation that is played just out of key. Here, the uniformly
strong cast play it just right.