Suspicion stalks the halls of St. Nicholas School, where a stern nun, Sister Aloysius, rules by fear. Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep) is the principal, and she's distrustful -- the students are up to no good, she is sure. The year is 1964, and the world is changing fast, turning in the wrong direction (something to do with declining penmanship standards and ballpoint pens). She suspects the parish priest, Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman), an apparently progressive, friendly man who likes to get chummy with the students, of being an agent of unwelcome change. He supports the performance of secular Christmas music, of all things.
Sister Aloysius gives Father Flynn the stink eye, and she's not alone. There's a boy, a student who recoils from Flynn, while another boy, the school's first and only black student, seems to worship the man. Before long, Sister Aloysius suspects that Father Flynn's intentions towards the latter boy are less than honorable, and downright unholy. Where others have doubts in the absence of proof, Sister Aloysius has certainty -- the certainty of her convictions, of her righteousness, and of her moral duty. Heaven help anyone who stands in her way.
Writer-director John Patrick Shanley has adapted Doubt from his stage play -- although it is set in 1964, it has plenty to say about the world today, and it is none too subtle about saying it. There is plenty of food for thought offered up for the chewing in Doubt: intolerance, envy, racism, homophobia, sacrifice, holiness, human nature, sexism, power and politics within the Catholic Church hierarchy (and the potential of same to harbor abusive priests), moral versus religious duties, and of course, doubt versus certainty.
The early scenes in Doubt are fascinating -- they offer a glimpse into the quiet, simple, and contemplative life of the nuns, their sisterhood, their caring for each other, which contrasts with their noisy, hectic days as teachers to rowdy, hormone-addled pre-teens. Doubt features austere nuns of the Sisters of Charity order who wear capacious black robes and tight, pleated bonnets; the priests and bishops, on the other hand, are a raucous, hard-drinking bunch who eat red meat dripping with blood. Father Flynn, for his part, is obsessed with clean fingernails -- his own are long and shiny -- and that raises more than an eyebrow on Sister Aloysius' part. Is Flynn merely eccentric, or something (what?) more sinister? Caught between Sister Aloysius and Father Flynn is a young nun, Sister James (Amy Adams), a tremulous, timid woman who reluctantly reports Flynn's odd behavior to Sister Aloysius. No less caught in the middle are the boy at the heart of the matter, Donald Miller (Joseph Foster II), and his complex and conflicted mother (Viola Davis), who both seem to view the priest as a kindly father figure.
Roger Deakins provides rich, beautiful cinematography -- of the Bronx tenements, the grey autumnal streets, the dark, worn and chipped-paint interiors of St. Nicholas School, and the splendor of the church. Shanley, as a director, favors tilted camera angles, wind, and thunderstorms as narrative devices, when his actors provide all the sturm und drang this movie needs. The movie's roots as a stage play are betrayed by the fairly obvious mise-en-scene, and its heavy reliance on dialogue and words. But the words are really terrific, and interesting, and playful -- dancing around the issues, alluding to the unspeakable, sowing paranoia both by what is said, and what is never said.
Streep isn't above chewing the scenery along with errant priests. Her Sister Aloysius is hilariously fierce and grumpy -- she literally hisses at students -- but she is also thoroughly, imperfectly human, and her ferocity is backed by a strong sense of right and wrong, and a belief that good ends justify any means. In her nun's habit, nothing of her is visible but her unadorned face and hands, and Streep makes masterful use of both to augment the screenwriter's words. Streep runs away with the movie -- and runs over Hoffman and Adams in the process -- but that's in keeping with her outsized character. Hoffman's Flynn, on the other hand, remains ambiguous, untidy -- the film pulls the viewer to and fro on the matter of Flynn's guilt or innocence. Should we believe the frowning, mistrustful nun, or the charming, smiling, but increasingly defensive priest? Doubt is content to leave us hanging in the uneasy greyness of suspicion and indecision, in defiance of the tendency of movies generally to traffic in certainties and clarity.