Playwright John Patrick Shanley adapted and directed his own Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Doubt for the screen, but the film is trapped in the confines of a stagey setup. Doubt is certainly a delicious showcase of very strong actors delivering riveting performances due to the tension-driven dialogue of Shanley's script, but the film is not quite a full-blown cinematic experience, although the story itself is often dramatic and engrossing. The film plays like a ardent debate between two fierce, persuasive characters. The concluding note is a mist of profound ambiguity that questions the audience on whom they believe based on the evidence provided. But doubt will prevail.
Doubt takes place a year after President John F. Kennedy's assassination. America's spirit has been torn by the fears of uncertainty and a culture captivated by modern ideas of change. St. Nicholas Chuch School is no longer immune to the changes of the outside world and the new priest, Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) wants to see the changes come full circle within the heavily traditional climate of St. Nicholas. Father Flynn is friendly with the students, uses a ballpoint pen, and suggests a secular song for the school's annual Christmas pageant. St. Nicholas is finally changing with the times, thanks to a charismatic reformer at the its core.
While Father Flynn develops a fabulous relationship with all the students, Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep), the universally feared principal of St. Nicholas School, sees Father Flynn as a nemesis and a threat to the very walls of the Catholic church. When the compassionately naive and easily conflicted Sister James (Amy Adams) confides in Sister Aloysius that Father Flynn may have acted inappropriately with the school's first black student, Donald Miller (Joseph Foster), Sister Aloysius takes full advantage of this opportunity to take Father Flynn down--with great certainty in tact.
The performances are uniformly excellent. After four decades, Streep shows that she is still the reigning queen of the film industry, with her complex performance as Sister Aloysius. Sister Aloysius is undeniably cold and stern, but she is a powerful force of nature, accompanied by dry wit, assured judgments, and unyielding confidence. Although he differs in personality, Hoffman's Father Flynn possesses the same inner qualities as Sister Aloysius, which makes their heated conversations a wonder to behold, especially in the head-to-head verbal battles leading up to the finale. Hoffman's Father Flynn holds on to Streep's Sister Aloysius's every word like a calm, biting breeze.
But the true surprise in the cast is Viola Davis, who plays the boy's struggling mother. In a single scene, Davis lets the audience into her hardships at home and her hopes for her son. Nothing can stand in her son's way of future success if she can help it.
Doubt benefits from the finely-tuned performances from its masterful ensemble cast and Shanley's dialogue, but the film is sometimes dull and restrained. After watching Doubt, I wondered if I would admire the cinematic treatment as much if I had already experienced the play on stage. The film has all the bareness of basic theater and doesn't bother to take any risks that go beyond the Dutch angle. But there is an elegance about Doubt, mainly attributed to Roger Deakins' cinematography that paints a blooming yet restricted portrait of a sixties-era Catholic church.
Like another film released in 2008, The Reader, Doubt also dares to ask tough, intense questions attached with its characters' final decisions and the emotional consequences that follow. Doubt tells us that beliefs are rarely not without uncertainty. Despite the film's dismissible theatricality, Shanley directs his story well.
Rating: *** (out of four)