While the script itself seems far less dire than implied in its advertising, an incredible cast elevates a good script into a great film.
The year is 1964. At the St. Nicholas Catholic school in the Bronx, Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Meryl Streep) is the all-rules nun to be feared, ever watchful for inequity and swifter with punishment. When Sister James (Amy Adams) brings the actions of the progressive-thinking Father Brendan Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) to Sister Aloysius’ attention, Sister Aloysius feels there is cause to suspect Father Flynn but has no evidence with which to damn him. What follows is a game of religion, wordplay, and power, but is Sister Aloysius’ investigation of Father Flynn for the good of the school or an attempt to destroy someone simply because she doesn’t like them?
Based on the Tony award-winning play, the story is straight-forward, a quest for evidence to prove an accused priest of something unthinkable in 1964. What is called into question is the hierarchy of power in the Catholic church and whether or not there’s even a victim to the supposed crime, but what fuels the film is the delivery of biting dialog that is always a loaded trap for anyone responding to it. One particular scene defines the minefield of words the three main characters walk through as Streep attempts to size up Hoffman in the presence of Adams, each taking their turns to seize power from the other with no regard to the actual lines drawn. Watching and listening to scenes like this are riveting, and having a cast this articulate to deliver it is indeed a miracle.
In contrast to the play itself, the guilt of the priest for what he is being accused of isn’t the only thing going on, but since everything hinges on it, it is an omnipresent force in the story. Sadly, something more sinister may have had more impact at the conclusion, or perhaps something more ambiguous as to the priest’s guilt might have served the story better. If acted out by lesser actors, the story might not have carried as much weight, but Streep, Hoffman, and Adams trade verbal barbs so naturally that you might believe this to be an actual conversation you’ve stumbled in upon (and pray that no one saw you in order to slip back out unnoticed).
Hoffman’s priest once refers to Streep’s nun as “The Dragon,” and in context, it is accurate to the character. Sister Aloysius is tough but not unfair; most who cross her are well aware that they deserve her ire. Father Flynn, on the other hand, indulges on occasion and isn’t wrong when he thinks that children need time to play as well. None of that seems relevant, however, when that kind of moral flexibility may be what got you in trouble in the first place. For interplay and intrigue, Doubt weaves a tense, gun-free thriller where the only special effects are a light bulb and a wind machine.
(a three and a half skull recommendation out of four)