Saturday, 17 January 2009
The year is 1964 and New York's St Nicolas Catholic school operates under the chilly gaze of iron-fisted tyrant (and principal) Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep). Her superior and parish priest Father Flynn (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) is a far more likeable and easy-going man - so naturally Aloysius is far from his biggest fan, and advises the other nuns to keep a close eye on him. But when Sister James (Amy Adams) comes to Aloysius with vague suspicions about Flynn's dealings with a 12 year-old black student, are Aloysius' actions based on genuine concern or her own darker desires? Based on his own play, writer / director John Patrick Shanley has created an at times stagy but none the less compelling exploration of conflicting attitudes and the stresses placed on "truth" when it's one person's word against another's. Reminiscent at times of David Mamet's famous "who's side are you on?" play Oleanna but with the occasional forced parallel with the self-serving methods of the War on Terror (says Aloysius: "In the pursuit of wrongdoing, one steps away from God") shoehorned in, it's the kind of stagy, verbose film you can't help feeling would be a lot more effective left as a play. But outstanding performances from Streep and Hoffman make even the rare flat moments watchable, and the many gripping scenes soar.
Anthony Morris (this review appeared in The Big Issue #321)