Elspeth Rushbrook provides a comparison of Meryl Streep’s two latest movies, Mamma Mia and Doubt…
In my view, the former is only worth seeing as a contrast to the latter. In a week, I saw middle aged Meryl leap on bed and roll on the floor and squeal; and then don a fearsome bonnet and play one of these serious award winning roles that I associate with her.
Not being one for hype or having an especial love of Abba, I eschewed the summer blockbuster come winter warmer and saw it only with my mother as post cancer cheer up at home. I quickly realised that I would need a glass of wine to cope with the cavorting and loosely sewn hits from the Swedish band to make a semblance of a story. I say again how much the squealing of the women – both older and young – struck me and made me recoil. That was when I first got up and flew to the fridge for solace. The story is that a young girl is about to marry and wants to invite her Dad – but her mum had three flings close together and the daughter does not know which led to her birth. So she invites all three old flames of her bohemian single mother, without warning, to their Greek island for singing mayhem to ensue. The spectacle was not the hoards of dancers bursting into quite tangent songs to fit Abba’s repertoire in; it was the woman known for Oscar nominated epics doing something so daringly different.
I kept blinking to think that the brilliant, brilliant drama Doubt was the same woman in the same year. For I had last seen Meryl in a beautiful old repertory provincial cinema playing a nun headteacher who battles the winds of change (literally blowing though her window) and yet mixes austerity, judgment and conservatism with warmth, humour and sympathy. The trailer and synopsis for Doubt led me to believe that I would probably simply hate Sister Aloysius as this obstacle to progress: a racist and accusing woman who wages an reasonable personal vendetta against her warm, caring superior, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman. But despite Father Flynn’s early comment that she is a hungry dragon, I found her more of a Beauty and Beast kind of monster – one that you kind of pity and even rally for. When wonderful younger Sister James feels bound to report that Father Flynn and the school’s lonely only black student are spending inappropriate time together, Sister Aloysius believes the Father is being abusive. Even that is too crude a description of the story and misses out other characters, such as the older nun who’s going blind but no-one will admit this. Father Flynn is not simply the good, victimised, forward thinking one. We are given a creeping suspicion that Sister Aloysius isn’t wrong. Reviews have said ‘she has no proof but her certainty’ but that is not a truly reflective statement. And Father Flynn is not always more appealing.
Without wishing to spoil it, the drama does not go into the corners I expected. Amy Adams’ character (Sister James) also deserves a special mention. When she teaches her heartfelt class on American presidency, it made me want to go and research the subject, although I have never cared about it before. Perhaps we applaud those performances that show only melancholy or evil or disability and illness; but Sister James combines many emotions including a guileless warmth and positive regard which makes her award nominations well deserved.
Doubt is one of the best written dramas (by John Patrick Shanley) that I recall having ever seen. From the opening homily serving as a prologue, the quality of the story – its themes, dialogue – was clear. It is rare that I sit in a cinema so savouring a film that I do not want it to end. Unlike Mamma Mia, when I was rather relieved.