In his adaptation of his own award-winning play, writer/director John Patrick Shanley has assembled a stellar cast that is able (for the most part) to overcome the movie’s flaws, which include a somewhat airless narrative and heavy-handed symbolism.
At St. Nicholas School in the Bronx circa 1964, all the students live in fear of the formidable principal, Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep), who hisses and snaps at the children to maintain discipline - and whose zeal for tradition leads her to ban ballpoint pens. She becomes convinced that Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a priest with less dogmatic views and a bit of a friendlier approach, has had inappropriate contact with the school’s only African-American student, a friendless boy named Donald Muller.
Understanding the power imbalance she faces due to the Church’s gender hierarchy, Sister Aloysius enlists the help of a kind-hearted young nun, Sister James (Amy Adams), in confronting the priest and ending the depredations that Sister Aloysius is sure he is engaged in. But Sister James, lacking the elder nun’s certainty, is a reluctant participant, preferring to believe Father Flynn’s explanation. (He claims he has been trying to comfort and protect Donald.) Sister Aloysius also gets an unexpected reaction from Donald’s mother (Viola Davis), who views the boy’s abusive father and the dangerous public schools as greater threats than the attentions - even improper ones - of a priest. Determined to act, Sister Aloysius makes a decisive move, but in the end, it’s not at all clear what has been won or lost.
Shanley has opened up the play with additional settings and characters, but perhaps for this reason the dramatic arc of the story feels somewhat foreshortened, with the climax arriving rather abruptly. And even with the addition of scenes outside the school, Doubt feels, well, cloistered - the nation and the Church itself were both undergoing massive transformations during this period, but you wouldn’t really know it from the movie. Instead of incorporating more references to the Civil Rights movement or the Second Vatican Council, Shanley relies on the trite metaphor of stormy weather. And he seems to lack confidence that his words and images will convey the desired meaning to the audience, at times telegraphing when a nudge would do.
But the issues raised - faith, virtue, power, loyalty - are compelling ones, the dialogue crackles, and the characters will have viewers debating their actions and motivations. The entire cast shines: Streep as Sister Aloysius is tough but not without compassion; Hoffman as Father Flynn is hard to pin down - seemingly liberal but entirely comfortable invoking his privilege as a man in the Church; and Adams as Sister James is earnest without being a dupe.