"Doubt" hits the big screen with some formidable talent behind it, but don't let its impressive pedigree throw you. Forget for a moment that it's an adaptation of a Pulitzer- and Tony-winning stage play. Forget that it stars two heavyweight actors in Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman. Forget that it is bathed in the occasionally claustrophobic hues of Oscar-bait mystique.
Strip away all the pretensions and "Doubt" is essentially a parlor mystery. A stern nun at a Catholic school suspects that a priest is having an inappropriate relationship with an altar boy. Is the priest a pedophile or a man of God helping a troubled child? Are the nun's fears founded or has Mother Superior jumped the gun?
Set in the Bronx in 1964, "Doubt" unfolds when school principal Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Streep, "Mamma Mia!") begins to suspect that all is not well at St. Nicholas Catholic School, where she rules with a severity usually reserved for boot camp. She harbors serious doubt (what a good name for a movie!) about the amiable, progressive-thinking priest, Father Brendan Flynn (Hoffman, "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead").
Sister Beauvier bristles at Flynn's pronouncements that the church needs to be more approachable, but she reserves most of her scorn for the "interest" that he takes in the welfare of the school's first black student, 12-year-old Donald Miller (newcomer Joseph Foster II). Her worst fears are seemingly confirmed when she learns that Donald reeked of alcohol after a private meeting with Flynn.
BATTLE OF WILLS
So begins a battle of wills between a priest and nun with diametrically opposed ideas about discipline, the Catholic Church and even the lyrics to "Frosty the Snowman." Sister Aloysius vows that Father Flynn will confess the wrongdoing he adamantly denies. "It's my job to outshine the fox in cleverness," she tells Sister James (Amy Adams, "Enchanted"), the impressionable teacher who's caught in the middle.
"Doubt" is polished, sharply observed and unwaveringly tasteful. Director John Patrick Shanley ("Joe Versus the Volcano"), who also wrote the script based on his hit play, nicely expands the work from its four-character origins, but still doesn't exactly shake its staginess. Despite the distraction of some tilted camera angles "? an effect that seems more appropriate for student films than mainstream Hollywood "? "Doubt" doesn't pretend that it isn't essentially a filmed play.
That's OK. The dialogue is piquant, the strongly drawn characters a feast for actors. There is some lip service paid to the concepts of doubt and certainty ("Doubt can be a bond as powerful and sustaining as certainty," Flynn booms from the pulpit) but the film is more wickedly entertaining "? and not nearly as weighty "? as it would have you believe.
Shanley has assembled a knockout cast. Hoffman imbues his character with suitable ambiguity; Flynn has an open-faced affability tempered by fissures of melancholy. Adams affects sweetness that is not cloying. As Donald's mother, Viola Davis ("Nights in Rodanthe") has only one scene, but it is a stunner.
Best of all is Streep. Her Sister Aloysius is a force of nature, a barely contained vessel of rabid righteousness. It is a big, fat, scenery-chewing performance, and it is impossible to take your eyes off her.