Once upon a time, a movie set amongst priests and nuns and portentously titled Doubt might have concerned a crisis of faith. These days, however, another cause for uncertainty springs immediately to mind. Sure enough, no sooner has Father Flynn (Hoffman) finished his opening sermon, in which he discusses the possible spiritual advantages of finding oneself at a loss, than he’s locking horns with the meddlesome Sister Aloysius (Streep), who’s convinced that the kindly and unusually progressive Father has been taking unwholesome liberties with their school’s sole black student. (The story takes place in 1964, smack in the middle of Vatican II.) The evidence is slight and wholly circumstantial: Another nun, Sister James (Adams), smelled alcohol on the boy’s breath when he returned to class after being summoned by Father Flynn, and later saw the Father return the boy’s undershirt to his locker. Nonetheless, Sister Aloysius knows what she knows, and will stop at nothing to protect her charges from this perverted miscreant.
Adapted by John Patrick Shanley from his own Pulitzer-Prize-winning play, Doubt remains theater incarnate, in spite of strenuous and rather florid attempts at cinematic expressionism (mostly involving Dutch angles and symbolic weather patterns). Fortunately, it’s pretty good theater. Streep sometimes seems a bit distracted by her thick New York accent, but nonetheless manages to locate the vulnerability buried deep, deep beneath Sister Aloysius’ stern certitude. Even better is Hoffman, who rings subtle and marvelously discordant notes on Father Flynn’s indignation; his response to the initial accusation is a thing of beauty, perhaps the single best mini-performance I’ve seen all year. (Others would cite Viola Davis in a show-stopping turn as the boy’s mother, though she’s a bit, well, show-stoppy for my taste.) I just wish this had been conceived as cinema from the get-go. Doubt works like gangbusters onscreen so long as Shanley’s dialogue remains menacingly insinuated, but loses much of its power when it turns into a prolonged, highly theatrical shout-fest in its final act. Whether you love or hate Shanley’s only previous effort as a director, Joe Versus the Volcano, you have to admit, it’s a damn movie.