Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington

From the

Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302

Media Watch:
‘Australia’ an epic disappointment; ‘Doubt’ delivers complex ideas, powerful performances

by Father Tom Caswell, for the Inland Register

(From the Jan. 15, 2009 edition of the Inland Register)

Movie Reviews

Director Baz Luhrmann spent seven or so years bringing his epic-style film Australia to the screen. I am sorry to report that the film is a major disappointment and the responsibility must go to the director.

Australia is three or four stories put together in what becomes too long a film. There are some very fine actors in the film, but the vast majority have been asked to play their roles with a certain opera-like flamboyance. In this film the bad guys are really bad. You almost want to hiss at them. I readily admit that young Brandon Walters, who narrates the film and plays a half-caste orphan named Nullah, is very good.

The computer-generated graphics are really cheesy. The scenes with the runaway cattle and the very steep cliff that they are poised to go over make Hollywood studio films of the 1940s look like the zenith of realism. The scenes of the city of Darwin at the time of the Japanese bombing are so cartoonish they take away from the seriousness of the events taking place.

Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman) flies from London to the Northern Territory of Australia to find out what is happening at her husband’s huge ranch, called Faraway Downs. Her husband is found dead at her arrival. She is taken to the ranch by Drover (Hugh Jackman) who is put off by her, just as Lady Sarah is put off by him. Here we have the setup for a typical romantic comedy.

Then there is a long section on the importance of getting the cattle of Faraway Downs to military ships in Darwin. An evil cattle baron named King Carney (Bryan Brown) will do anything to stop the Drover and his motley crew from getting the cattle to market, which would destroy his own monopoly.

Throughout the film there is a strong discussion of racism. Until 1973 children of mixed race could be captured by government authorities in Australia and sent to concentration camp-type facilities where their native culture was to be destroyed. Nullah is present in the various different strains of the film.

There is a grand ball sequence in Darwin over which Lady Sarah presides and Drover comes as her beloved. Then several years go by of life at Faraway Downs and a split between Drover and Lady Sarah. At the same time there is the bombing by the Japanese of the city of Darwin soon after Pearl Harbor was bombed. Who will survive? It is the capstone of old-fashioned Saturday afternoon serials. One of the bad guys really gets his due in a very violent scene. By this time, most viewers probably assume that the violence is cartoonish and far from real.

Australia is rated PG-13 (Parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13) by the Motion Picture Association of America. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Office for Film and Broadcasting rates the film A-III – for adults.


Roughly three years ago I had the opportunity to see John Patrick Shanley’s extraordinarily well-written play Doubt. I was with a New York priest whose sister at the time worked in the same Catholic high school where the Sister was still working who served as the model for the role of Sister James.

The new movie version of Doubt is also directed by Shanley, who many will remember for the wonderful script in the modern classic film Moonstruck.

Meryl Streep plays Sister Aloysius Beauvier, the principal of St. Nicholas parish school in the Bronx. It is 1964. The assistant pastor of the parish is Father Brendan Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman). He is very active in the school as basketball coach and trainer of altar servers. Sister Aloysius is a strict disciplinarian who bemoans the fact that her students use ball-point pens. But it becomes obvious that she cares for her students and will in a sense fight until her last breath for them.

We hear two homilies from Father Brendan in the course of the film. One is on the subject of “doubt.” The other is on “bearing false witness.” Father Brendan, popular with the students and parishioners, represents a breath of fresh air blowing through the parish in 1964.

A younger Sister, named Sister James (Amy Adams), is a little loose with discipline. Sister Aloysius sometimes checks up on her in her eighth-grade classroom. Sister James opens up the conflict of the story when she tells the principal that she was concerned when one of her students, Donald Miller (Joseph Foster II), acts differently after having returned from being called by Father Brendan for a private visit to the rectory. Thus begins the tug-a-war between Sister Aloysius and Father Brendan over her fear and growing surety that he has committed an act of sexual abuse with the only African-American student in the school.

Key points of this mind-puzzle of a story and incredible acting come when Sister Aloysius confronts Donald’s mother (Viola Davis) with her fears about Donald and Father Brendan; the final verbal fight between Sister Aloysius and Father Brendan; and the somber ending in the garden between Sister James and Sister Aloysius. Three people seeing Doubt can come out of the film with three versions of what has just happen. That is one of the reasons this is such a wonderful film for adults. You really do want to talk about it and learn from what others have seen.

Shanley’s direction has a few minor problems. He does open the film up to a wider view of parish and school, but he also overuses the wind and the leaves as symbols. When Douglas Sirk did the same thing in Written on the Wind (1956) he was telling a very ripe soap opera The tilted-camera-angle used to show anxiety was done at its best in Carol Reed’s The Third Man. The technique is distracting in Doubt.

Meryl Streep starts out the film as a terror in black. She seems to be stereotyped. As the film goes on her humanity shows through. Philip Seymour Hoffman gives an outstanding portrayal as the well-liked but somewhat mysterious priest.

But the two supporting roles are as good as it gets. Amy Adams is perfect as Sister James. She is the balance between the two protagonists. And she moves from side to side in her concerns and beliefs. Viola Davis, the only actor from the original play, breaks your heart as Mrs. Miller. Her short part is a portrayal you will remember.

My guess is that Doubt might be painful for someone who suffered abuse of any kind. In the end, the film is about what is the truth and how much human doubt is present in our judgments. For many, Doubt will be an unforgettable film.

Doubt is rated PG-13 (parents strongly cautioned because of the theme) by the Motion Picture Association of America. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Office for Film and Broadcasting rates the film A-III – for adults.

Book Review

About nine years ago I had a chance to see the beautiful Salisbury Cathedral in England. Recently looking at a map I discovered I was only 10 or 15 miles from Dorset, where much of the new P.D. James mystery, The Private Patient, takes place.

I marvel at P.D. James’s incredible talent as a mystery writer in the grand British tradition. She is 88 at the present time and she writes as engaging an Adam Dalgliesh mystery as she did years ago.

James always has wonderfully descriptive sections that make the place of her mysteries come alive. She has engaging and complicated plots, but her mysteries have a literary style that goes well beyond “just keep that plot moving.”

Investigative reporter Rhoda Gradwynan is having a facial scar removed at an upscale private clinic in deepest Dorset. She received the scar from her drunken father many years before. The clinic is in a grand old building called Cheverell Manor. Soon after the surgery she is found brutally murdered. A combination of circumstances brings Commander Adam Dalgliesh and his special team from New Scotland Yard to Cheverell Manor to lead the investigation.

There are lots of fascinating sub-plots and even another murder at one of the stone houses on the grounds of Cheverell Manor. There are trips to London to visit the apartment of Rhoda Grandwyn and those in charge of various wills.

I must admit I didn’t read The Private Patient rather consistently and I got a little confused on who was who and on some of the twists of the plot. But I suspect that is my problem more than the author’s.

If you enjoy P.D. James’s novels, her latest will continue that tradition of an exciting story told with class and style.

The Private Patient (2008) is published in hardcover at $24.95 by Alfred A. Knopf of New York.

(Father Caswell is diocesan archivist and Ecumenical Relations Officer for the Diocese of Spokane, as well as a frequent contributor to this publication.)

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