Film4: PREMIERE Tuesday 8 September, 12.50am
Dressed fit for the Salem witch trials, scary nun Meryl Streep confronts cheerful priest Philip Seymour Hoffman over allegations of abuse against her Catholic school’s first black pupil. Although John Patrick Shanley’s Broadway play opened in 2004, two years after the Catholic Church sex-abuse scandals that rocked America, his story is set reassuringly in the past.
It’s the Bronx in 1964, a year after President Kennedy’s assassination, as Hoffman reminds the congregation in his opening sermon. His point being that in times of uncertainty, doubt can form a strong a bond with faith. (He doesn’t need to mention the fact that Kennedy was America’s first Catholic president.) The touchy subject cries out for the blunt Baby Jane approach of Robert Aldrich.
Indeed, the imperious Streep, snapping and snarling like Bette Davis, seems to acknowledge as much. It was her 15th Oscar nomination. Her 17th won for The Iron Lady and she’s had a couple more nods since, for August: Osage County and Into the Woods. Shanley’s staid staging here is an irrelevance in the face of such brilliant acting. Both Streep and the guarded Hoffman comfortably inhabit the Catholic regalia, while we should all be grateful that Viola Davis, electrifying as the boy’s mother, was awarded a role desperately wanted by Oprah Winfrey.
It’s beautifully photographed, too, by Roger Deakins, the English cameraman favoured by the Coen brothers. His carefully framed portrait of 60s New York ties in the picture with Five Corners, the Bronx movie Shanley wrote in the 1980s. That, too, had a 60s wind-of-change setting, and a mildly creepy Catholic undertow.