In Doubt, John Patrick Shanley has adapted and directs his own Pulitzer Prize-winning play about turmoil at a Catholic elementary school in the Bronx in the fall of 1964.
Is the modern, youngish priest Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) simply being kind to sixth-grader Donald, the school's only African-American student? Or has he, as young Sister James (Amy Adams) wonders euphemistically to her superior, Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep), "taken an interest"? The by-the-book Sister Aloysius certainly takes an interest, accusing Father Flynn of improprieties (which he denies), and bringing in the boy's mother (Viola Davis) for consultation.
Shanley's four-person play, which has been slightly expanded for the screen, boils down to an extended confrontation between Father Flynn and Sister Aloysius. The conflict is larger than whether Father Flynn behaved inappropriately; it's also a struggle for power and authority within the rigid hierarchy of the church, which plays out even at a provincial parish like this. The primacy of the priest makes Sister Aloysius' unilateral machinations even more shocking -- or does this breech of protocol simply prove her certainty?
Also in the mix is the changing nature of the church: Sister Aloysius is dogmatic about preserving the old ways, particularly in the instruction of children, while Father Flynn has embraced new directives to be more accessible. ("We should be friendlier.")
And speaking of the modern Catholic Church ... Because this is a period piece, there is no mention of contemporary court cases regarding pedophile priests, and the revelations of decades of institutional cover-up. Regardless, our knowledge pervades this work like an unseen fifth character.
From its opening, in which Father Flynn delivers a prescient sermon ("What do you do when you're not sure ... when you're stricken by a private doubt?"), to its open-ended conclusion, the truth is never absolute. Toward this end, Doubt is structured to repeatedly toggle the audience's assessment of who is right, Father Flynn or Sister Aloysius. As in life, we can judge based only on secondhand evidence and our own biases. (Yet I chose a side quickly and firmly, perhaps affirming Shanley's suggestion that each viewer sees a different story.)
The acting is uniformly fine, if at times a bit theatrical. Streep throws her all into dramatic facial tics (particularly the sidelong glance), but with Sister Aloysius' full habit, her acting palette is chiefly limited to her head. Adams is outclassed by vets Hoffman and Streep -- but then again, I thought Davis stole Streep's lunch money in their big scene together.