The air is thick with paranoia in “Doubt,” but nowhere as thick, juicy, sustained or sustaining as Meryl Streep’s performance as a distrustful nun in John Patrick Shanley’s screen adaptation of his stage play. Wearing flowing black robes, a bonnet that squats on her head like an upside-down Easter basket and the kind of spectacles Mr. Pickwick probably wore to read his papers, Ms. Streep blows in like a storm, shaking up the story’s reverential solemnity with gusts of energy and comedy. The performance may make no sense in the context of the rest of the film, but it is — forgive me, Father — gratifying nunsense.
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Although the play, which pivots on accusations of child molestation, was first staged in 2004 — two years after the Roman Catholic Church sex-abuse scandals erupted in America — it unfolds at a historical remove in 1964. Sister Aloysius (Ms. Streep), the principal of a Catholic school in the Bronx, comes to suspect that her supervisor, Father Flynn (a tamped-down Philip Seymour Hoffman), has developed an erotic interest or worse in one of their charges, Donald (Joseph Foster II), the school’s first and only black student. Shored up by the tentative suspicions of a younger nun, Sister James (an unsteady Amy Adams), Sister Aloysius begins circling Father Flynn, going in for the kill. Sister James has doubts. Sister Aloysius has, well, none.
As its title announces, “Doubt” isn’t about certainty, but ambiguity, that no man’s land between right and wrong, black and white. This gray zone paradoxically can be easier to grapple with on the stage, where ideas sometimes range more freely because they are not tethered to representations of the real world. Mainstream moviemaking, with its commercial directives and slavish attachment to narrative codes, by contrast, isn’t particularly hospitable to ambiguity. It insists on clear parameters, tidy endings, easy answers and a world divided into heroes and villains, which may help explain why Mr. Shanley’s film feels caught between two mediums and why Ms. Streep appears to be in a Gothic horror thriller while everyone else looks and sounds closer to life or at least dramatic realism.
Despite its theological asides and weighty moral stakes, “Doubt” essentially boils down to a shell game: you think you see the pea under this or that shell, but the prize (answer) remains tauntingly out of reach. So does Father Flynn, a character who for a long stretch appears above reproach: a good, caring, forward-thinking man whose only crime seems to be tolerance. When he suggests that the school add a secular song to its Christmas lineup as a way of reaching out to the community, Sister Aloysius reacts as if he had suggested human sacrifice instead. That he seems to embody the spirit of reform handed down by Second Vatican Council, which ended in 1965, makes him all the more sympathetic.
Directing from his own script, Mr. Shanley chips away at this sympathy, pulling the story and your feelings this way and that. One of the most eccentric moments in the film occurs when Father Flynn, after admonishing some male students about their dirty fingernails, shows off his long, carefully manicured nails. Mr. Shanley complicates this feeling of gender ambiguity later when Father Flynn, having gone to Sister Aloysius’s office for a meeting, sits behind her desk without asking permission, an assertion of power that opens a fissure in his easygoing facade and says more about the church and gender than any of their increasingly heated exchanges. Mostly, though, the characters talk, and Mr. Shanley throws a frame around their heads.
Words make the world go ’round here through repetitions, indirection, allusion as well as a cunning deployment of the barely said and the flat-out unspeakable. (The word “pedophilia” is never uttered.) When Sister James tells Sister Aloysius that Father Flynn has “taken an interest” in Donald, the words reverberate like a struck bell. Later, when Donald’s mother (Viola Davis, shaking the film up with a few extravagantly mucousy minutes) explains to Sister Aloysius why she wants to keep her son at school, no matter what the truth about the priest, her words resonate partly because they remain veiled by shame, propriety, fear, inequality, pain. What are you telling me? Sister Aloysius demands of the stunned mother, though it’s clear they both know the answer.
Mr. Shanley has nothing deep to say about the church and its sex scandals, and he’s still largely using words and more words, despite the tilted camera angles and pretty pictures. But the words are good, solid, at times touching. His work with the actors is generally fine, though it’s a mystery what he thought Ms. Streep, with her wild eyes and an accent as wide as the Grand Concourse, was doing. Her outsize performance has a whiff of burlesque, but she’s really just operating in a different register from the other actors, who are working in the more naturalistic vein of modern movie realism. She’s a hoot, but she’s also a relief, because, for some of us, worshiping Our Lady of Accents is easier on the soul than doing time in church.
“Doubt” is rated PG-13 (Parents strongly cautioned). Intimations of child sexual abuse.
Opens on Friday in New York and Los Angeles.
Written and directed by John Patrick Shanley; based on his play; director of photography, Roger Deakins; edited by Dylan Tichenor; music by Howard Shore; production designer, David Gropman; produced by Scott Rudin and Mark Roybal; released by Miramax Films. Running time: 1 hour 44 minutes.
WITH: Meryl Streep (Sister Aloysius Beauvier), Philip Seymour Hoffman (Father Brendan Flynn), Amy Adams (Sister James), Viola Davis (Mrs. Miller), Joseph Foster II (Donald Miller), Alice Drummond (Sister Veronica), Audrie Neenan (Sister Raymond), Susan Blommaert (Mrs. Carson), Carrie Preston (Christine Hurley) and John Costelloe (Warren Hurley).