Welcome to FrockTalk, the web’s only costume-based movie review site. The goal of Frocktalk is to shed light on the magnificent artistry of costume design in motion pictures. Reviews on this site are written by working costume designers in the entertainment industry – people who know, better than anyone, what it takes to make it all happen. The focus of FrockTalk is not to comment on the big flashy costume dramas, but to call attention to the seemingly ordinary costume design work in film that silently and persuasively moves the audience toward understanding the characters. Costume design for motion pictures is an art form that deserves more recognition than it usually gets. Fancy, pretty costumes do not always equal effective, appropriate costumes. The art of the costume is in letting the audience know who the character is, before the actor even has a chance to open his mouth. Read on, and enjoy. ** CAUTION: ALL REVIEWS CONTAIN SPOILERS! **


Photos courtesy Miramax – THANK YOU!!!

Review Date: 12-14-08
Release Date:    12-12-08
Runtime: 104 min.
Period: 1964
Costume Designer: Ann Roth

With its talent-heavy cast (Streep! Hoffman!  Adams!  Davis!), and Pulitzer/Tony-winning pedigree, Doubt is a great movie about three people talking in a room.  I mean, from a costume point-of-view, this is a movie where most of the screen time is focused on two or three people at a time, talking.  We spend our time inside a church, a school, the principal’s office.  It’s claustrophobic, it’s disturbing, and it’s wildly entertaining.  I don’t think many other actors but Streep, Hoffman, Adams, and Davis could keep our attention in these circumstances.  This is a play put on the screen, and it is the strength of the actors’ performances that renders the film riveting.

The film takes place in the Bronx, NY, in 1964.  Meryl Streep plays Sister Aloysius, the hard-assed principal of the parochial school.  Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Father Brendan, the parish priest (technically Sister Aloysius’ superior).  Sister Aloysius detests the new priest from the word go – his liberal sermons, touchy-feely intentions.  The Sister cannot seem to accept even a ballpoint pen; its new technology is offensive to her, nevermind the cozy familiarity Father Brendan wants to project to his congregants.  Father Brendan represents a kind of cultural shift within the church that Sister Aloysius finds repugnant.  Here we see the “old church vs. new church” battle that has plagued institutionalized religion for years.

Enter Sister James (Amy Adams), who suspects Father Brendan of an illicit relationship with one of the parochial students.  It is a circumstantial suspicion, to be sure, but the mere suggestion of wrongdoing sets Sister Aloysius on a rampage. Not helping matters is that fact that the boy in question is the school’s first black student (Donald Miller, played by Joseph Foster II), whom Sister James swears had alcohol on his breath after a discreet private meeting with Father Brendan.  Sister Aloysius pursues Father Brendan with a righteous certitude that is at times amusing, but mostly frightening.

Sister Aloysius calls the boy’s mother (Viola Davis) to the school for a conference, and Mrs. Miller’s reaction to the allegations about Father Brendan are nothing if not surprising.  Viola Davis delivers a walloping one-two combination in her performance, and for a moment, eclipses the sun-like intensity of Streep.  It’s an amazing scene.

In the end, Father Brendan is sent packing, but he never admits to any wrongdoing.  Sister Aloysius is left to deal with the fallout from these incidents on her own, mired in her own doubt.

As far as the costumes go, we are talking about nuns and priests here.  They wear uniforms, more or less, and they don’t really ever change.  However, in this film, these costumes become part of the characters.  These particular nun habits (Sisters of Charity) are ancient in their silhouette.  The nuns look vaguely like Civil-War-era widows, with their big skirts and sturdy black bonnets.  Evidently, the nun who was the basis for the character of Sister James gave her old habit to costume designer Ann Roth for reference.  Back in the day, the nuns would sew their habits themselves, adding another layer or “story” to these costumes.  These nun habits are elegant in their simplicity, almost chic, if you look at it objectively.  Instead of putting on an overcoat in the cold weather, thick black woven blankets are draped over the shoulders.  It’s a remarkably old-fashioned, austere silhouette and look.  For a movie that is a battle of “old church vs. new church”, these habits certainly help to underscore the nuns’ position.

Most of the movie, Father Brendan wears the basic priest garb: black suit, black shirt with vestigial tab (the white square bit peeking out from the black shirt).  He cuts a modern (1960s) silhouette, and the suits fit him, though it tends to look a tad tight, which, in my opinion, is appropriate.  We see Father Brendan enjoying a hearty dinner, with alcohol – he doesn’t skip meals, and it shows.  When he is leading a service, he is dressed in the requisite liturgical vestments, robes, stoles, etc.  There is not a stone unturned here – all of the clerical garments are impeccable.  Father Brendan’s basic priest wear, modern in silhouette as it is, serves to inform the audience of his position in the “old church vs. new church” battle.

Mrs. Miller shows up at the school in a stunning camel/mustard-colored ensemble that does wonders for her skin tone.  This costume is beautifully constructed, with delicate topstitching in the collar of the coat – a small detail that, with the pearl cluster earrings and pillbox hat, speaks to the fragile pride and humble circumstances of this character.  I love, love, love this costume for its understated simplicity.

What I would really like to discuss, however, is the perfect harmony of hair, makeup, props, production design and costumes in this film.  These departments worked together seamlessly to create an environment so real, so flawless, you can almost smell it.  The scenes in the school (all of the children wear uniforms) are full of detail.  Hair: Brylcreamed on the boys, neatly combed on the girls, barrettes and accessories, perfection.  Props: every last notebook, pencil, classroom decoration was period-accurate without exception.  School uniforms: classic, perfectly-fit, neatly pressed and maintained.  Even the overcoats the kids wore over their uniforms were perfection.  For a film about three people talking in a room, the attention to detail lavished on the background is breathtaking.

The churchgoers are similarly appointed.  No stone is left unturned in the costuming, hair and makeup of these background players.  It made my heart swell with delight to see this.  When you watch a film that has been lovingly rendered, as is evident here, you realize all that is possible in filmmaking.  Many of us have worked on films where we never have enough time, money, teamwork or manpower to lovingly render every aspect of the background.  It is frustrating to be held back by these constraints.  When you see an example of a film that has achieved the level of care, accuracy, harmonious intent and beauty evident in Doubt, it is indeed a joy to behold.

That being said, we are talking about Ann Roth here.  She doesn’t mess around.  She is responsible for some of the finest movie costume design in the last forty years.  The pride and love she demonstrates for her work is self-evident.  As for Doubt, though, for a film about three people in a room talking, her crew was enormous.  She had a crew of eleven, plus two tailors.  I am going to have to do some research into how many costumers worked how many days, and how it all came together, how much money they had to work with, and so on.  These are questions that beg asking.  We know Ann Roth is a brilliant costume designer, but how big was the budget?  How long was the prep?  How much did they manufacture?  Where did the rentals come from?  It always makes a difference – time and money.  Stay tuned for more information, as I track her down.

Doubt is one of those movies that is so smooth, it is easy for the viewer to become lost in the experience and to not notice things like costumes, hair and makeup.  I think that the “losing ones self” of the audience, in this case, is mission accomplished for the creative teams on this film.  Those of us who look closely, who are “in on” the silent emotional manipulation of the audience via visual and design elements, we get it.  This film is a real joy to watch, visually, and the departments involved in making it happen deserve kudos.  They busted their buns, and the movie stands as an achievement of great design, great beauty and great storytelling.  In the end, Doubt is not a movie about the costumes.  But don’t tell that to Ann Roth.


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