John Patrick Shanley’s “Doubt” is one of last year’s more intimate dramas with a main cast of four (Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams and Viola Davis). Based on Shanley’s own 2005 Pulitzer Prize-winning play, “Doubt: A Parable,” is set in a Bronx church during the ’60s and tests the morals of one priest, who is accused of committing illegal acts on one young African-American boy.
Streep, baring an uncanny resemblance to film critic Roger Ebert, portrays Sister Aloysius, the Principal of the school attached to the church. Sister Aloysius accuses Father Flynn (Hoffman) of sexually abusing an altar boy, who is also the sole minority in the school.
Throughout the film, Streep and Hoffman chew all the scenery and leave nothing behind. The two dramatic powerhouses infuse every bit of energy they have as actors to go toe to toe against the other. Perhaps one of Streep’s more affected performances, her Sister Aloysius straddles the line between caricature and human being. Hoffman plays another disgruntled, angry man with a problem (watch his performance in last year’s “Synecdoche, New York,” which better represents his talent as an actor).
Amy Adams does not stretch too much playing another wide-eyed young woman. Adams’ Sister James is non-confrontational and plays her part perhaps too literally. (In one monologue, Sister James tearfully admits to Sister Aloysius that she likes the song “Frosty the Snowman” and wants it performed at the Christmas pageant. The delivery of the monologue is laugh-out-loud funny, which does not seem to be Shanley’s direct intention.)
On the other hand, Davis is a revelation as Mrs. Miller, the mother of the boy who may or may not have been abused. Even though Davis is only in the film for one short scene, she makes a significant impression. Mrs. Miller defends Father Flynn to Sister Aloysius since she believes that he is one of the only people to care for her son. With actual snot dripping from her nose and delivering every line with conviction, Davis gives the performance of a lifetime.
The religious and moral implications Shanley’s screenplay addresses may have been more suited for the stage. It is no surprise that his last (and only) directorial venture before “Doubt” is 1990’s dud, “Joe Versus the Volcano.” Despite shakiness from Shanley, cinematographer Roger Deakins does solid work here. His focus on the actors is masterful and his attention to detail remains unparalleled in comparison to some of his peers in the industry.
“Doubt” is a stagey film with a hint of campiness that may be worth making into your next drinking game (take a swig whenever “doubt” is said or during any scenes where Hoffman shouts his lines). As a film of any value, “Doubt” is not worth the time. There is no doubt about it.