At first glance, Doubt seems like little more than a consummate exercise in box ticking — it’s got everything. Period setting? Check! Nuns? Meryl Streep? The vague threat of incipient paedophilia? Thrice check! Upon closer inspection, this may seem unfairly cynical; after all, the story is adapted from John Patrick Shanley’s Pulitzer-winning play — by the playwright himself, no less, who also directs — and has a pedigree cast whose players are not known for mistakes, Streep aside.
Still, Shanley’s theatrical reputation and accolades do beg the question of what he’s doing slumming it in cinema at all — and unfortunately, this seems to be a thought that occurred to the director at some point during production. Although he doesn’t succumb to every temptation facing those converting material meant for the stage onto screen, there is still a feel of occasionally unnecessary expansion and clumsily repeated visual motifs that are inserted for no reason other than that they could be.
Philip Seymour Hoffman is Father Flynn, the young priest attempting to broaden the appeal of Catholicism with an affable and pragmatic approachability, whilst all the time struggling against the prevailing dogmatic creeds of Sister Aloysius (Streep), whose authoritarian rule keeps the local church school in line. After getting wind of a possible case of Flynn abusing a young pupil, Donald Miller, Sister Aloysius embarks upon a crusade to have her adversary removed from his post, buoyed by little more than an unshakeable internal conviction.
For the scenes the two share, both Streep and Hoffman are masterful: playing off one another like a pair of seasoned boxers, neither conceding ground, throwing jabs, and all the while maintaining a fragile equilibrium of power and evenly proportioned senses of righteousness. Individually, or when faced with one of the remaining members of the ensemble, however, and both of these performances feel curiously empty — as if they belong in a theatre and have been awkwardly displaced.
As Sister Aloysius’ lieutenant, Amy Adams effortlessly upstages her superior, playing a variation of the wide-eyed ingénue character for which she has been rightly applauded in the past. Adams manages to combine endearing charm with her position as the uncompromised moral centre of the play: unwilling to go along with her colleague’s vendetta, and unsullied by accusations.
Better still is Viola Davis, playing the mother of Miller, who with a single scene manages to steal the entire film from under Streep’s nose. She is simply magnificent — flawed, emotionally broken, and willing to sacrifice almost every motherly instinct so that her son can have an education; and the real wonder behind Davis’ performance is its compassionately rendered, eminent believability.
Although Streep has been tipped as a likely contender for a third Oscar, it is Adams and Davis who truly elevate Doubt from the rank of well crafted if slightly self-worthy piece, and into the upper realm of excellent, performance-driven pictures, redeeming it from association with a host of recent films (The Reader, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) which seem to have been adapted by people who hate cinema.