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Philip Seymour Hoffman’s role as Fr Flynn was among his greatest performances

The late actor shone a torch into the dark corners of clericism

By on Monday, 3 February 2014

Hoffman, with Doubt co-stars Viola Davis, Amy Adams and Meryl Streep (AP Photo/Chris Pizzello

Hoffman, with Doubt co-stars Viola Davis, Amy Adams and Meryl Streep (AP Photo/Chris Pizzello

The macabre details of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s demise are becoming a source of ghoulish fascination. It is tragic that a young father of three and distinguished actor was devastated by his poison of choice.

A regret of mine is that I did not write to Philip Seymour Hoffman and congratulate him on his role in John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt. I hold it as Seymour Hoffman’s finest acting, and I esteem Doubt as more than a piece of theatre, but as a torch that shines a light into the dark corners of clericalism.

Seymour Hoffman played the role of the chubby and chummy Fr Flynn, the parish priest of St Nicholas Church School, where the principal Sister Aloysius is a stickler for proper decorum. At first, we think that the nun is an irritating bigot. She dislikes Fr Flynn because his nails are long, he takes lots of sugar in his tea and he writes with a ball-point pen as opposed to a fountain pen.

But Fr Flynn is friendly with the male pupils, something that unnerves Sister Aloysius because she doesn’t think well of priests becoming too friendly and over-familiarising themselves with young boys. Fr Flynn takes a particular interest in Donald, the first African-American pupil who is new to the school. One day the boy acts strangely and has alcohol on his breath after spending time alone with Fr Flynn.

Immediately, Sister Aloysius thinks the worse, and takes Fr Flynn to task. Seymour Hoffman’s Fr Flynn employs masterful use of wry grins and sideways glances that undermine the grim-faced nun. He wriggles out of giving a straight answer, deflects by objecting to Sister Aloysius’s tone and then grudgingly explains that the boy had been caught drinking altar wine, and that he was protecting him from unfair punishment by keeping his drinking quiet, but this does not satisfy Sister Aloysius.

As a means of putting Sister Aloysius in her place, Fr Flynn delivers a sermon on the evils of gossip. When she confronts him again, he challenges her on whether or not she has ever been in mortal sin, and upsets the strong nun, but she does not back down. No matter how much he protests his innocence, Sister Aloysius continually tackles him on whether he has interfered with the boy or not. She points out that St Nicholas is his third parish in five years, and says that she rang his previous parish and collected intelligence on his previous infringements.

This is the breaking point, and Fr Flynn asks for a transfer. Fortunately for him, he has been charming his superiors and is promoted to pastor in his next parish.

Seymour Hoffman’s performance lends itself to a fine portrait of clericalism. From the way he uses his authority as a priest and bullies the nun about her past sins to his manipulative sermon that is designed to reduce her doubts about him to ‘gossip’, and most appallingly the way he is promoted by superiors who like his jokes, but do not care to check his record with children.

Every nuance of Sister Aloysisus’s stringency is portrayed splendidly by Meryl Streep – but Seymour Hoffman’s slippery Fr Flynn is just as sublime. It’s high praise indeed when you can put an actor on the same page as Streep.