John Patrick Shanley’s 2004 play “Doubt” won the Tony Award and the Pulitzer Prize, so it clearly had something to impress audiences and tastemakers.
The movie version doesn’t approximate that kind of impact, even though Shanley adapted and directed it himself. “Doubt” is one of those stage properties that probably made a riveting experience in the black box of a theater with four actors going at it tooth and nail. But in the movies, something more is needed.
Shanley begins the film with a sermon, literally. Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the pastor of a Bronx parish, is delivering his Sunday talk. It’s on the subject of certainty and doubt — which, not so coincidentally, is also the subject of the film.
It’s the autumn of 1964, and Father Flynn represents a new-school movement in the Catholic Church. This doesn’t sit too well with aged Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep), the principal at St. Nicholas school, who finds the idea of “doubt” a rebuke to her concept of the Church.
She’s all steely certainty, herself. This will serve her well in the main matter of the story, when she has suspicions that Father Flynn may be getting inappropriately close to a boy at school, who happens to be the first black student at St. Nicholas.
Most of the picture is a battle of wills — no, make that philosophies — between Father Flynn, who is liberal and modern, and Sister Aloysius, who is a traditionalist and a terrier. Adding ambiguous notes are a younger nun (Amy Adams), whose sympathies can be swayed with each new argument, and the mother (Viola Davis) of the student, who has her own take on the allegations.
Even while acknowledging that “Doubt” is far too stagey to ever quite come to life as a movie, I have to say I enjoyed it anyway. It’s quite possible that 12 years of Catholic education will give some of us a peculiar appreciation for the movie’s details.
The handsome cinematography by Roger Deakins and the re-creation of that decade in Catholic schooling rings true. A sequence of Father Flynn and the older priests smoking cigarettes and drinking whiskey while they chow down on steak captures the era in a precise way.
Certainly “Doubt” is an actor’s showcase. Amy Adams has a delicate, searching quality in a part that at first seems utilitarian, and Viola Davis (lately seen in “Nights in Rodanthe” and “Disturbia”) is a dead-certain Oscar nominee in a tricky role.
Hoffman is expert, although I think the role would’ve been more interesting with an actor who didn’t already carry an air of creepiness about him. Meryl Streep gives a frankly theatrical performance, and that’s what I like about it. Sister Aloysius is carrying off a performance of her own, and Streep uses humor like a carving knife. She keeps the central prizefight alive.