In John Patrick Shanley's Doubt, a hard-line nun suspects a progressive young priest of committing improprieties with an altar boy. Their close quarters, cat-and-mouse confrontations, and rich, pertinent discussions about the flaws of blind faith helped earn Doubt a Pulitzer for Best Play.
Many of the traits that make Doubt a great play inhibit it from becoming a great movie. Shanley directs his own adaptation to mixed results. Doubt's setting, a Bronx church and middle school in 1964, looks exactly the way theater-goers would've imagined it. Shanley clearly has his dream cast, including Meryl Streep as old-school Sister Aloysius, Philip Seymour Hoffman as passionate but enigmatic Father Flynn and Amy Adams as the naïve young nun who vacillates between them.
To build suspense cinematically, Shanley relies on gathering storms, sinister crows and odd camera angles, until Doubt nearly resembles an Omen sequel. Little character-enriching details, such as Sister Aloysius' disdain for ballpoint pens as a sign of laziness, seem too obvious when filmed in close-up. Sister Aloysius, as the kind of dragon-lady nun who terrifies generations of students, affords plenty of room for humor, but Streep plays the role so broad, she undermines the tone of high-stakes encounters that should nearly resemble police interrogation scenes.
Hoffman delivers the kind of forceful, magnetic performance that comes as a surprise because he so frequently portrays collapsing failures. Since the boy, the school's first black student, went unseen in the play, the film gives him tender moments with Father Flynn that make Doubt's gray areas even more complex. Viola Davis has been justly acclaimed for her supporting turn as the boy's mother, who strikes a balancing act dictated by love for her son and the complexities of race and sexuality in the 1960s. Davis' big speech, however, features such a distracting touch that it's difficult to pay attention to her character's anguish.
Where a big, bustling costume drama like Amadeus significantly improved in the translation to cinema, Doubt more closely resembles a stage-to-screen adaptation like Tracy Letts' Bug. On stage, the tensions hang over actors and audience alike, but the mediation of film puts the audience at a remote, rather than fostering intimacy. Doubt still provides rhetorical warfare worthy of George Bernard Shaw as it explores both the hot-button issue of pedophile priests and the more general theme of the perils of certainty, but it remains the kind of movie that would rather be a play.