Stage to Screen 

Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman shine in Doubt.

Like so many movies this year, Doubt is very good, but it's missing something that would've made it great.

You can't fault the premise. Doubt is about a Catholic school and parish in quiet crisis, when a nun suspects a priest of "inappropriate behavior" with an altar boy. The nun, Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Meryl Streep), is the school principal, a ninja disciplinarian who sees her duty as stemming the tide of change in the church (and, thus, the world). To her, a barrette in a girl's hair is a clear indicator of impending teenage pregnancy.

The priest, Father Brendan Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman), has a different perspective on the way the world is going. The year is 1964, and he senses his flock feeling hopeless following President Kennedy's assassination. In a homily opening the film, Flynn asks, "What do you do when you're not sure?" and concludes, "Doubt can be a bond between people as powerful and sustaining as certainty." As to matters of church, Flynn sees intolerance where Sister Beauvier sees staying the course of tradition. The school has admitted its first black student (Joseph Foster), and Father Flynn takes him under his wing to protect him from the racist sins of his classmates.

Caught between Sister Aloysius and Father Flynn is Sister James (Amy Adams), a young, guileless nun and schoolteacher undergoing a crisis of belief when the nun accuses the priest of doing things he ought not. Sister James is the one who might actually have seen something, making her a trustworthy witness to circumstantial evidence. She doesn't want to believe it's true. Sister Aloysius, with an institutional memory of institutional sin, is certain that it is.

Doubt was written and directed by John Patrick Shanley, based on his own play. The film does things the play can't, such as exploring the setting visually. As a director, Shanley is interested in architecture, angles, and the shapes of things. The film feels very much like a play adaptation, with long, uninterrupted scenes of dialogue and confrontation.

Shanley is also interested in actors, and the acting is Doubt's greatest strength. Streep is as good as she's been in a long time, tasked with keeping Sister Aloysius unlikable but not villainous. Hoffman, who looks like an overgrown boy, is dynamite: At a few key times, he's able to express two contradictory emotions at the same time, proving his innocence or guilt depending on which you think it is.


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