The thunderclap moments are a tad muffled in John Patrick Shanley's film adaptation of his play Doubt. But thanks to a nearly perfect cast, this provocative glimpse into the Catholic priest child molestation scandal manages to be deeply disturbing on several levels.
Philip Seymour Hoffman is Father Flynn, the "modern" priest at St. Nicholas Church and School in the Bronx, which, in 1964, has just admitted its first black student. Father Flynn gives entertaining and thoughtful sermons on "isolation" and "doubt."
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"Doubt can be a bond as powerful and sustaining as certainty," he preaches. That earns a raised eyebrow and raised suspicions from Sister Aloysius, the hard case who rules over the school. She doesn't have room for doubt. Her whole worldview is certitude. Meryl Streep plays this martinet as if she's Sister Zero Tolerance. Misbehaving kids earn a head slap, fellow nuns a withering look should they dare speak before she does at their austere and silent evening meal, and a too-friendly priest? Insinuations.
Sister James (Amy Adams) is the impressionable young teacher, frightened by Sister Aloysius and a little out of her depth in the classroom. But under the older nun's tutelage, she can learn to be hard. And under Aloysius' influence, Sister James begins to have suspicions about Father Flynn's interest in the new black student.
What follows is a cat-and-mouse game between the cunning old nun and the free-spirit priest, a war for the mortal soul of the younger nun and the future of this church and school. To Sister Aloysius, it's about standards, morality and tradition. "Every easy choice today will have its consequences tomorrow, mark my words," she fumes and she sets about bringing down the priest for something that has become, in more recent years, the shame of the Catholic Church. But did anything happen?
The play's title was Doubt: A Parable. Unlike the play, built on offstage events and hearsay, the film's literalism removes some of that "doubt" about guilt or innocence.
The cast is splendid. Streep, her eyes red-rimmed with anger at the world she is forced to watch go to heck in a handbasket, plays the school principal as world-wise, cagey, but occasionally overmatched. The early confrontation scene with Father Flynn shows just how right the casting of Hoffman was. The Oscar-winner holds his own opposite the great Streep, tipping from easy charm to fury in a flash.
Adams suffers from being a bit on-the-nose playing Sister James' naive side. Her moments of steely resolve and anger don't seem to rise organically. They're just abrupt plot contrivances.
But Doubt gives us plenty to chew on as it seeks to touch on the many possible explanations for priest-altar boy scandals, painting in gray tones an issue we've been willing to see as simple black and white, finding "doubt" in something the world has been certain it understands and condemns.