Now I know a lot of people have been chortling over the sight of Meryl Streep in her nun's wimple and granny's granny's spectacles in the publicity shots from and trailer for Doubt. But let me assure you,in the film itself, just a couple of minutes with her character, Sister Aloysius Beauvier, will wipe that smirk or whatever it is right off of your face.
The picture opens with Flynn sermonizing on the value of doubt. Such talk is absolutely inimical to Sister Aloysius, so you could say that a bug is already firmly planted in her ass when younger Sister James (Amy Adams), a slightly simpering naif, approaches Aloysius with "concerns" about Father Flynn's relationship with the school's sole African-American student, Donald Miller (Joseph Foster II). Aloysius then declares, shall we say, holy war on Flynn, and the lion's share of the film is split between her very dicey machinations and a fierce philosophical debate conducted (sometimes obliquely) between the three main characters on certainty and, of course, doubt.
John Patrick Shanley adapted the script from his own highly acclaimed play, and directed. Shanley is roundly lauded as a remarkably engaging writer, and he's also a terrifically thrifty one—not a word or gesture is wasted here. It's to his everlasting credit that, despite being a piece about Very Major Themes, the film never plods or feels overbearing. It is in fact a very effective dramatic entertainment, and quite ingeniously constructed. While there's never really a point in the story where you absolutely don't know who to believe, there are sufficient curveballs—one delivered quite devastatingly by Viola Davis as young Donald's mother—to throw you a little off-balance until the picture's surprising but entirely apt coda.
The acting here, as you might have inferred from the names of the cast, is no problem. It's rather refreshing to see Hoffman playing what will be for most a conventionally sympathetic character. I think it's the first time since, oh, hell, his Lester Bangs in Almost Famous? There's gotta be something else, but that's what's sticking in my mind at the moment. Adams really gets the complexities underlying her seemingly simple character—'cause when you think about it, being both a young woman and a nun is pretty, well, complex. Davis, in a very short time, evokes a world of hurt and trouble. And Streep takes what could have been a caricature—not that the writing encourages caricature, but the archetype the character's representing certainly does—and imbues it with all kinds of vitality, from her not-nearly-submerged New Yawk accent to the animatedly malicious pleasure she takes in, say, whiling away office time listening to that transistor radio she's confiscated from a student.
I should say this was not a picture I was particularly excited about seeing. Especially given the last Much-Bruited-Miramax-Sponsored-Film-Adaptation-Of-A-Broadway-Hit-Drama, the limp noodle Proof. No, Doubt beats that dog in a leisurely walk. But it's better than that, even.
As the credits went up, I had (what I took for) an amusing thought—that the whole piece was actually a parable on the War in Iraq. This is not an idea that I particularly want to pursue, as I don't actually believe it, but I'll bet money that at least one know-something-ish critic (likely of the Social Concern Troll variety) will pick up that ball and try to run with it. I'll keep you posted. Or you can keep me posted.
UPDATE: I clearly need to research these things a little more thoroughly—having not given too much of a look at what was written about the theatrical version of Doubt, I didn't realize that the Iraq analogy had already been brought up. Shanley himself did not quite swat it away in an EW interview:
Some have suggested that Doubt is a criticism of the Bush administration's invasion of Iraq and its unconfirmed belief in weapons of mass destruction.
On some level, there's a political point. But most political plays are about reconfirming your politics to you — which just bores me into insensibility — as opposed to putting it back on you. The theme should arise like smoke off a play. It shouldn't be stated, or if it is, it should go by like just another line.
This means, among other things, that'll I'll be compelled to give a pass to the film critics who bring it up.