The considerable integrity and strength of John Patrick Shanley’s play prevail despite a questionable central performance in “Doubt.” Stepping back behind the camera for the first time since his misguided “Joe Versus the Volcano” in 1990, Shanley capably retains the power of his study of unsubstantiated moral convictions gone tragically awry, and the extensive opening up of his four-character, 90-minute 2005 Pulitzer and Tony Award winner adds in social context what it loses in sharply focused intensity. Miramax has plenty here to build this intelligent, absorbing drama into a strong B.O. performer with a discerning public looking for movies that are actually about something.
Set in the socially transitional time of 1964, the probing story hinges on lurid suspicions about a compassionate, forward-thinking priest fostered by a stern, by-the-book nun at a Bronx school where, as principal, she runs a virtual reign of terror in the name of maintaining old-fashioned order and discipline.
Shanley’s play is classically constructed in the way the dialogue and character development are minutely laid out to serve the overarching purposes of the writer’s themes. “What do you do when you’re not sure?” Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) queries in his opening sermon, setting up a question that will be answered and illustrated in different ways by a select assortment of characters.
With mostly Irish and Italian congregants, St. Nicholas is full of well-groomed and mostly well-behaved kids aware that the slightest misstep will incur the wrath of Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Meryl Streep), who patrols the premises like a commandant at a Nazi prison camp. Her eternally suspicious eyes penetrating from behind rimless glasses and her mouth always threatening a scowl of disapproval, Sister Aloysius rails against such modernities as the ballpoint pen and even finds dubious connotations in Father Flynn’s preference for sugar — and three cubes, at that — in his tea.
Among those in the eighth-grade class of pretty and sincere Sister James (Amy Adams) is Donald (Joseph Foster II), the school’s first black student and one of Father Flynn’s altar boys. When Sister James picks up slight indications that the priest might be taking a special interest in Donald, she unwittingly sets the machinery of his undoing in motion by mentioning her suspicions to Sister Aloysius, who quickly makes up her mind about his guilt and undertakes her vendetta with unquestioning zeal.
The drama reaches its high point when Sister Aloysius calls in Donald’s mother (Viola Davis) to inform her of what she believes is going on between her son and his would-be protector. The scene, which begins in the principal’s office but on film now continues on a walk through a dreary housing complex on a chilly day, is superbly written; the representative of religious absolutism sticks to her certainty in the face of a deeply moving confession of true-life emotional realities about the boy’s domestic situation.
The tension between unbending principle and the call for compassion and human understanding could scarcely be more pointedly evoked than it is here, and Davis’ performance is devastatingly great as a troubled mother forced to voice her own uncomfortable views about her lonely, ostracized son. The scene as a whole constitutes a 12-minute emotional demolition job.
But there is more to come, as war is declared and fought in the inevitable showdown between Sister Aloysius and Father Flynn. The specific battle between individual characters is loaded with larger freight of religious, cultural and political dimensions; without putting too fine a point on it, the contest suggests the overall struggle within the Church between traditionalist and progressive factions, acknowledges the advent of social turmoil — in the very neighborhood where the story unfolds, and in the nation at large — and directly reflects the era in which “Doubt” was written, when the inflexible certitude of the Bush administration resulted in the Iraq War.
Hoffman’s performance is ambiguous enough to make the viewer continue to wonder about Father Flynn and, crucially, to fear Sister Aloysius might actually be right. Thesp is particularly effective in his sermons, delivering his thoughtful remarks with a clarity and intellectual pertinence that many pastors might envy. Adams does all anyone could with the role of a nice young nun who must cope with the monster she unintentionally lets out of the box.
The film’s one iffy element, oddly enough, is Streep. This master screen actor, who applies a slight New Yawk accent to her phrasings, takes the vocal low road here as opposed to the more forceful approach of Cherry Jones in her riveting Broadway turn. By ostensibly underplaying the role’s villainy, however, Streep overdoes the melodrama, thereby turning Sister Aloysius into more of a stock figure than she ultimately seemed onstage. Every little tic, gesture and facial mannerism seems maximized by the effort expended to minimalize them, to diminished returns in the cause of creating a three-dimensional character. While the dramatic scenes still register with notable force, it’s a disconcerting, unsatisfying performance from a thesp who most of the time rings true.
Time and place are well caught by top-drawer production hands, including production designer David Gropman, costume designer Ann Roth and cinematographer Roger Deakins. Howard Shore’s score provides unobtrusive strength.