A filmed stage play usually goes as far as its actors are willing to take it, and John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt, adapted from his own play, is no exception.
The four principal actors here – Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Meryl Streep, Amy Adams and Viola Davis (who has but a single scene, though it sits at the heart of the film) – each garnered a well-deserved Academy Award nomination for their work; that should give you some idea of how successful the film is.
And that’s not to take anything away from Shanley’s material, which is thought-provoking and refreshingly ambiguous.
Doubt takes place in 1964 at St. Nicholas, a Bronx Catholic School governed by strict nun Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep). She’s a woman of certainty, who doesn’t like sugar or ballpoint pens or the new parish priest, Father Flynn (Phillip Seymour Hoffman).
She asks young Sister James (Amy Adams) to keep an eye on Flynn; when one of James’ pupils, Donald Miller, the school’s only African-American student, is called down to the rectory for a private meeting with Father Flynn and returns smelling of alcohol, she draws her own conclusions. And this is all Sister Aloysius needs to begin a war of words with the Father, who is helpless to defend himself against the Sister’s certainty.
But Doubt isn’t about priests and child molestation. It’s about the titular ambiguity – we can never really be sure, can we? So often, we’re given easy answers in cinema, as if the audience is an omnipotent being; it’s refreshing to see something like this, which isn’t afraid to give us provoking material with realistic ambiguity.
Outside of a few Dutch tilts, there are no awkward directorial intrusions here; Shanley wisely lets the acting carry his film. And what acting it is. In a film like this, there’s an unwritten rule that says the audience sides with the character played by the actor who gives the best performance; here, it’s impossible to choose sides.
Streep’s Sister Aloysius, with her heavy Bronx accent, could have easily been a caricature but is instead vividly brought to life. Hoffman’s Father Flynn retains quiet dignity in the face of the allegations thrown against him. Amy Adams matches her co-stars. And Viola Davis, playing Donald Miller’s mother, steals the film in her one gut-wrenching scene.
You used to see a lot of films like Doubt, stage plays that succeeded in the transition to film for their simplicity, letting the material speak for itself. Not so much anymore. This is one of the best examples of the genre since James Foley’s 1992 adaptation of Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross.