Doubt, a Tony and Pulitzer-winning play from 2005 with an intriguing central problem, received a fairly literal Hollywood adaptation in 2008, quickly taking Oscar nominations for its performances, which include Meryl Streep as Sister Aloysius Beauvier and Philip Seymour Hoffman as Father Brendan Flynn.
Father Flynn embodies Vatican II; he's gregarious, moderately hip, and takes pleasure in life. He reaches out to students and parishioners. Dinner at the manse involves laughter and a glass of wine. Sister Aloysius, the principal of St. Nicholas School, is a dour traditionalist. She enforces decorum, doctrine, and her disapproval of ball-point pens within and without the school walls. It's the early 60s, but she's no Singing Nun; dinner with her involves quiet reflection or pointed spiritual questions. She believes the laity want the clergy to be "different," and she's not sure any of us should sleep well.
We like Flynn. We're hostile towards Sister Aloysius. The problem: the nun suspects the priest of beginning an improper relationship with a twelve-year-old boy. These things were not much spoken of in 1964. The Roman Catholic Church has a hierarchy that does not give nuns much power, and society reinforces that sexist structure. Further complicating the problem is Sister Aloysius herself. She may want to rebuke the flesh, but she's as human as anyone, and her very human biases may be leading her to misinterpret the facts.
Then again, Father Flynn may be guilty.
Sister Aloysius enlists the aid of enthusiastic, naïve Sister James (Amy Adams), who teaches Flynn's suspected target, Donald (Joseph Foster), the school's only Black student. Sister James sees how the conflicts reveal divisions in church and society-- and the personal demons that plague both of her superiors.
Everyone involved gives performances that bolster and enliven a script which can be, at turns, powerful, captivating, slow-moving, and contrived. Flynn has much to recommend him-- but the veneer of charm can wear thin. I never warmed to Sister Aloysius (who at one point denounces Frosty the Snowman as "Pagan"), but she's more likable than she appears at first to be. Other standout performances include Viola Davis as Donald's concerned, conflicted mother. The film's greatest strength is that it takes characters veering on stereotype, spokesmodels for world-views, and imbues them with believable, if occasionally strained, humanity.
The film also impresses with its faithful recreation of a time. I recall the world looking like this; I could almost smell the ditto sheets and the burning censers.
Doubt is, to be certain, not perfect. The use of pathetic fallacy and similar stylization does not work as effectively here as it might on stage. And one never entirely forgets that this was a stage play, here presented with minimal concessions to the medium of film. I can recommend the film-- but it necessarily pales beside a well-done theatrical production.
Written and directed by John Patrick Shanley, from his play.
Meryl Streep as Sister Aloysius Beauvier
Philip Seymour Hoffman as Father Brendan Flynn
Amy Adams as Sister James
Joseph Foster as Donald Miller
Viola Davis as Mrs. Miller
Alice Drummond as Sister Veronica
Audrie J. Neenan as Sister Raymond
Carrie Preston as Christine Hurley
John Costello as Warren Hurley
Lloyd Clay Brown as Jimmy Hurley