Shanley's chamber drama has Oscar pedigree


Release date: Dec. 12

With few exceptions, such as “A Streetcar Named Desire” and “Driving Miss Daisy,” movie adaptations of Pulitzer Prize-winning plays more often than not invite unfavorable comparisons with their original stage incarnations. John Patrick Shanley’s “Doubt,” which the playwright directed for the screen, is bound to undergo similar scrutiny.

The film version of this chamber drama — a battle of wits between a headstrong nun and the parish priest whom she suspects of certain transgressions involving an altar boy — doesn’t introduce any extemporaneous characters nor is it considerably “opened up” cinematically. As might be expected from a dramatist adapting his own work, the emphasis is on dialogue and character — not to mention such themes as sexism, the abuse of authority and the blurry line between suspicion and damnation — and the claustrophobic aspect of Shanley’s original vision remains intact.

Straddling a career between Broadway and Hollywood (he won an original screenplay Oscar for “Moonstruck”), Shanley has only one previous film directing credit, “Joe Versus the Volcano” (1990), and it’s no stretch to assume that the strict adherence to the written word applies no less to his screenplays than his stage work, which can either anchor a performance or constrict it.

Oscar winners Meryl Streep as Sister Aloysius and Philip Seymour Hoffman as Father Flynn emphasize the more severe aspects of their characters, and for better or worse, the shadow of their stage forebears Cherry Jones and Brian O’Byrne looms over their performances. Amy Adams, as the skittish young Sister James — whose divided loyalties between Aloysius and Flynn provide the pic’s moral center — capitalizes on the career momentum generated by such films as “Junebug” and “Enchanted,” and will surely benefit from her sheer proximity to Streep and Hoffman. Viola Davis, with very little screen time, registers maximum intensity as the altar boy’s conflicted mother.

The no-nonsense, naturalistic cinematography is by Roger Deakins, who boasts an astounding seven Oscar nominations and no wins. Like last year, when Deakins was competing with himself (“No Country for Old Men,” “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford”), his other horse in the 2008 race is a thoroughbred: “Revolutionary Road.”

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