“What do you do when you’re not sure?” intones a priest (Philip Seymour Hoffman) to his flock. “That’s the subject of my sermon today.” So begin the epistemological explorations of Doubt, which writer/director John Patrick Shanley has adapted for the screen from his Pulitzer-winning play. Set in a Catholic School in the Bronx in 1964, the story centers on two antagonists: Father Flynn (Hoffman), a friendly, popular, progressive young priest who may or may not have taken advantage of one of the boys at the school; and Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep), the cold, backward-looking disciplinarian who suspects that he did. Caught between these two poles and attracted in alternation to one and then the other is a naïve young nun, Sister James (Amy Adams). Also making an appearance is the boy’s mother (Viola Davis), who suggests that any untoward attentions her son received may not have been unwelcome.
Shanley has assembled a topflight quartet of performers and even added a few subsidiary characters to round out his story. But Doubt still creaks a bit of the stage, displaying the kind of tidy narrative geometry that’s easier to pull off in the acknowledged artifice of live theater than in the feigned intimacy of cinema. Father Flynn delivers his sermons on doubt (imagining a hypothetical sinner, he quasi-confesses “No one knows I’ve done something wrong. Imagine the isolation”) and on the perniciousness of gossip. Sister Aloysius explains that, despite the lack of dispositive proof, she is convinced of Father Flynn’s guilt because “I know people,” “I have my certainty,” “It’s my job to outshine the fox in cleverness.”
Hoffman gives a subtle, even moving performance as the priest whose earnest appeals to tolerance, compassion, and love double as a get-out-of-jail-free card from his own conscience. But Streep treks deep into Catholic-school cliché as the tyrannical nun who stares daggers and furiously holds the line against such innocent innovations as secular Christmas music (“‘Frosty the Snowman’ espouses a pagan belief in magic and should be banned from the airwaves,” she snaps) and the ballpoint pen. She makes it through without tumbling into caricature--she is Meryl Streep, after all--but at times only barely. Adams, for her part, dims her usual luminescence as our surrogate witness to the dispute between doubt and certainty, and Davis delivers an impassioned, if limited, performance as the anxious mother.
Shanley offers flashes of exceptional writing--Father Flynn’s pregnant sermons are particularly sharp--but also a wearying parade of conspicuous metaphors. Some land cleanly (for instance, Flynn’s preference for keeping his fingernails long but scrupulously clean), but others (a bit about needing a cat to catch a mouse, a few references to the “changing wind”) audibly clunk.
The real problem with Doubt, though, is that it exhibits too little of its titular quality. I have not seen the play, which is widely praised for its ambivalence on the subject of Flynn’s guilt, but somewhere in the transition from stage to screen the equilibrium appears to have shifted. From the start, it seems clear that Father Flynn has taken erotic liberties with his young charge, and it only becomes more so as the film progresses: His demeanor is too guilty, his evasions are too feeble, and the evidence gradually accumulates in one direction alone. (The fact that there are several scenes featuring the victimized boy, who was only described secondhand in the play, may also tilt the balance.) As a result, the intended moral reversal, in which the attractive is revealed to be ugly and the intolerant to be just, lacks bite. Yes, Sister Aloysius may be an agent of repression--typically a scarlet letter of cinematic villainy--but some impulses need repressing, and sexual predation of the young is rather high on the list.
Moreover, because Father Flynn’s transgression seems so self-evident, the debate between his doubt and Sister Aloysius’s conviction is a one-sided one. The strength of skepticism and weakness of certainty, after all, lies precisely in the fact that the latter is unprepared to be wrong. By signaling from the beginning that Sister Aloysius isn’t, Shanley upends his careful balance and presents not an argument between competing ideals, but a sermon of his own.
Christopher Orr is a senior editor at The New Republic.