The problem with Doubt is its dramatic certainty.
From the start of this sadly familiar and stagy tale, set in a Bronx church and Catholic school in 1964, the headmistress, a stern disciplinarian named Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Meryl Streep), suspects her priest, Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman), of sexual misconduct. After Sister Aloysius persuades the naive Sister James (Amy Adams) to alert her to signs of unspeakable acts, the younger nun witnesses behavior she thinks raises questions.
The stage - pardon me, the screen - is set for a Lillian Hellman-like agony of conscience akin to The Children's Hour, the classic melodrama of lesbianism among teachers in a girl's school that Hellman called "the story of a lie." Director John Patrick Shanley pulls a twist on Hellman's trademark brand of ethical histrionics. He refuses to satisfy an audience's desire to know what happened and to experience a catharsis over the unveiling of "the truth."
Yet his tactics become just as mechanical as Hellman's melodrama, without the pleasures of Hellman's precision engineering. You know you're going to be taught a woefully basic lesson about men and women containing more complexity than can be explained in a series of charges and counter-charges. Of course, Shanley is morally correct, but that doesn't make his play and film more satisfying - especially since he's mucking about with issues that, with 21st-century hindsight, audiences realize will shake the church to its foundations.
Doubt, it appears, can be just as simplistic and dull in drama as dogma. And Doubt, as a play, has and is too much of both. It's no surprise to learn that Sister Aloysius, though stern and humorless, is also selflessly dedicated to aiding sometimes-helpless fellow nuns and maintaining school standards despite a condescending and oblivious male hierarchy.
If there were any surprises in her, they wouldn't survive Meryl Streep's drill-sergeant performance. Streep gets some laughs with her blend of cosmic distrust and disgust, but this pit-bull-without-lipstick kind of role presents pitfalls for a bravura performer like Streep, and she falls into every one of them. With Streep huffing and puffing as if she were the comic antiheroine of Christopher Durang's Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You, her Sister Aloysius almost never lays a glove on Father Flynn - a credit to Hoffman, a master of sweaty ambivalence. When he drips with guilt, it's impossible to tell whether it's because he's taken the sins of the world upon his shoulders or has committed quite a few himself.
Father Flynn proves to be genuinely concerned for the welfare of his flock, including the school's sole African-American student, Donald Muller (Joseph Foster II), the boy he's accused of molesting. But as good as Hoffman is, he can't uncover any revelations in a man Shanley has designed to be an affable, intelligent enigma. There's more unique art to what Hoffman's Flynn does on the pulpit than there is when he climbs down from it. This priest proves to be a consistently inspirational and imaginative speaker, addressing his congregation on matters of daily importance such as "doubt" and "gossip" in their own working-class vocabulary, with images drawn from common experience. For fleeting minutes, it's a relief to see Hoffman pull off the role of a straight-talking spellbinder.
If any of the actors grounds this movie, it's Adams as Sister James. Playing a teacher apt to treat Democratic presidents as saints, this actor brings off youthful idealism without a hint of sentimentality or self-satire. She keeps her character in focus while she connects in turn to Sister Aloysius and Father Flynn. Adams' galvanizing emotional honesty enables her to play kindness with strength and confusion with vividness.
Viola Davis is equally wonderful - fiercely maternal, even in anguish - as Muller's mother. Her one scene contains the film's only startling disclosure and theatrical masterstroke. But it's Adams who carries us through the action from beginning to end. While Streep grandstands and Hoffman vibrates with turmoil, Adams speaks with what the Bible calls the "still small voice" of truth.
Doubt ** (2 stars)
(Miramax) Starring Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams and Viola Davis. Directed by John Patrick Shanley. Rated PG-13. Running time 104 minutes.