“Doubt” is a film with many fine elements, but its director, John Patrick Shanley, doesn’t seem to trust them. Which is rather odd, because it was Shanley who wrote both the script and the play on which it’s based.
That play, gripping enough to win four Tonys and the Pulitzer Prize and attract film stars such as Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams, is set in the pivotal year of 1964 in St. Nicholas, a Catholic church and school in the Bronx.
It details a conflict between the church’s Father Flynn (Hoffman) and the school’s principal, Sister Aloysius (Streep), about the direction of the Catholic faith in general and the fate of one 12-year-old altar boy in particular.
Shanley the writer has carefully constructed this drama like the delicately balanced house of cards it is. On the stage as well as on the screen, “Doubt” is a highly polished piece of business, with every speech and every action calculated for maximum effect, a well-made play if ever there was one.
Although a did-he-or-didn’t-he mystery is “Doubt’s” central plot mechanism, the play and the film are about a whole lot more. Philosophical questions about conservative versus progressive religious values, about rigidity versus openness and suspicion versus proof, about how far it’s appropriate to go when you are sure you are right, are what got Shanley to write the piece in the first place.
But in the process of opening this story up, of changing it from a four-actor stage play to a film with multiple characters and numerous extras, Shanley seems to have lost a certain amount of faith in what he’d written. As a director he’s ended up pushing the drama harder than he needs to. He hasn’t done anything fatal, but he has tampered with and hampered it.
For one thing, Shanley has chosen to bring too much of the outside world into St. Nicholas’ cloistered halls. Having a cat physically catch a mouse at a key juncture is too literal a metaphor by half, and “Doubt” threatens to become meteorologically overwrought by putting all kinds of wind, rain and even thunder into the story whenever it feels the proceedings won’t work on their own.
The only place where this kind of literalism works is “Doubt’s” setting. Cinematographer Roger Deakins, production designer David Gropman and costume designer Ann Roth have combined to carefully re-create the look of the Bronx and the bonnet-wearing Sisters of Charity who call the borough home. An image of the nightgowned nuns coming out of their rooms en masse in the early morning is especially fine.
Inhabiting this world are two particularly well-matched antagonists. Streep’s Sister Aloysius is the showier role, a literal holy terror who hasn’t smiled since Pius XII was pope and inflicts old school discipline as disapproval and suspicion oozes from every pore. It’s a part that verges on caricature, but Streep is adept at walking up to that line without crossing over.
In the other corner is Father Flynn. As played by Hoffman, who looks just fleshy enough to be Pat O’Brien’s younger brother, Father Flynn is a priest who likes his pleasures, whether it be rare beef and red wine at dinner or three lumps of sugar in his tea.
These two are not just poles apart personally, they differ on the future of the church. Sister Aloysius is old-fashioned enough to consider “Frosty the Snowman” a pagan anthem (really), while Father Flynn thinks “It’s a new time, Sister, the church needs to change.”
This philosophical difference is heightened by a conflict over the situation of one particular boy, 12-year-old Donald Miller (Joseph Foster II), the school’s first black student.
Father Flynn takes an interest, saying he just wants to protect the friendless boy, but Sister Aloysius suspects that something akin to molestation might be going on. Father Flynn has a plausible answer for everything, but just because we feel closer to his worldview doesn’t mean he is without blame. As Sister Aloysius goes into overdrive, Hoffman’s nuanced performance gives nothing away.
It means no disrespect to Amy Adams, convincing as the innocent Sister James, the new nun on the block, to say that if anyone comes close to stealing the picture from Streep and Hoffman it is the superb Viola Davis as Donald’s mother, Mrs. Miller.
The scene between the concerned Mrs. Miller and the worried Sister Aloysius is “Doubt’s” high point, largely because Davis, best known for “Antwone Fisher,” brings a sense of decency, urgency and even fear to her rending performance. The concerns of the real world, not the cloistered one, walk into the film with her, and that makes quite a difference.
MPAA rating: PG-13 for thematic material
Running time: 1 hour, 44 minutes
Playing: In general release