Movie Review: Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman in 'Doubt'

By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 12, 2008

A great actress delivers a breathtaking star turn in "Doubt," John Patrick Shanley's taut, twisty adaptation of his Pulitzer Prize-winning play. Her name is Viola Davis, and in one utterly galvanizing scene, she single-handedly defines this riveting movie, emerging as its most arrestingly conflicted character and -- not incidentally in a film that's all about spiritual rigor -- its most compelling and unsettling moral voice.

Davis, who has delivered similarly memorable supporting performances (see "Antwone Fisher"), isn't one of the marquee names on the poster for "Doubt." But she should be, if only because she so gracefully obeys what might be one of the Ten Commandments of Acting: Thou shalt steal every single scene you can, especially from Meryl Streep. Davis does it with an emotional honesty as fierce as the unmovable object in her character's path.

That would be one Sister Aloysius, the fascinating bundle of monstrous and confoundingly sympathetic contradictions at the center of this sharp, swiftly moving chamber piece. As portrayed by Streep in an almost flawless performance, this amusing, alarming and even appalling creature, one of the great fictional characters to come alive on stage in recent years, deserves this wider introduction to movie audiences. (More about that "almost" later.)

"Doubt" opens in 1964 in the Bronx, where, at St. Nicholas Catholic Church, a newly arrived priest named Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is delivering a sermon, this one having to do with facing the existential and, by extension, spiritual void. Meanwhile, in the back of the church, Sister Aloysius is having none of it, casting a gimlet eye toward the pulpit and at one point getting up to smack a young churchgoer on the back of the head while whispering, "Straighten!"

That thwack-and-hiss will no doubt be familiar to Catholic school alums, who may find themselves chuckling ruefully at Sister Aloysius's vinegary sense of ethics. Lips pursed in perpetual disapproval, she looks down her aquiline nose at just about everything: sugar, ballpoint pens and, one would surmise, the folderol of Vatican II reforms. She's by nature suspicious, which puts her at odds with one of her new teachers, the trusting and gentle-natured Sister James (Amy Adams, who exudes just the right wide-eyed innocence for the part). She's also supremely sure of herself, so when she begins to sense something not quite right about Father Flynn, specifically his relationship to the male students, she embarks on a mission to ferret out the truth, a crusade that will reverberate in continually surprising ways.

Big ideas swirl with dizzying force throughout "Doubt" and its all-too-human vortex of manipulation and implacable moral certainty. Like the stage version, with just a few added scenes to "open up" the action, "Doubt" is structured mostly as a series of encounters between Sister Aloysius and her interlocutors, encounters that begin to take on increased intensity as the battle of wills and words escalates.

Clearly inspired by his own Catholic upbringing, Shanley brings a pitch-perfect sense of language, setting and tone to the proceedings, which are propelled by a coiled sense of suspense as viewers constantly weigh the evidence for and against Father Flynn. Is he the charismatic, easygoing basketball coach in tune with his changing times? Or are his motives more ulterior, especially when they have to do with the school's only black student, himself vulnerable and easily preyed upon? There are no easy answers, especially when that student's mother, portrayed by Davis, arrives for a meeting with Sister Aloysius and presents her with a nuanced, troubling and contradictory reality completely at odds with the nun's own unassailable ideals.

That's just one scene that will make viewers entertain their own doubts about who's right and who's wrong. As Sister Aloysius tightens the net in which she hopes to snare the priest, that distinction comes increasingly into question, and although in one too-obvious scene, Shanley introduces a literal cat and mouse, one of "Doubt's" strengths is that it's never entirely clear who's catching whom. Part psychological thriller, part character study, "Doubt" is finally a lucid, sharply observed taxonomy of hierarchy, offering an absorbing look at how often power shifts and changes hands within rigidly stratified institutions.

As twin embodiments of both power and powerlessness, Hoffman and Streep bring considerable skill to their roles, Hoffman with his ineffable combination of boyish charm and menace, Streep with a flat Bronx accent, steely resolve and brief flashes of dry wit. There's only one moment when she seems to falter, during the protagonists' climactic showdown, when Father Flynn asks her if she's ever sinned, and her otherwise uncompromising ferocity appears to crack. (She also lays the staging on a bit thick when she wields her crucifix like a weapon).

It's a fleeting moment, and she's quickly back in fighting trim. In fact, the slight backing-off will probably be only perceptible to filmgoers lucky enough to have seen "Doubt" on the stage, especially with the incomparable Cherry Jones in the role. But even those theater purists can be grateful that Streep has helped bring "Doubt" to a wider audience, one that with luck will be captivated and challenged by its wily pleasures and provocations.

Doubt (104 minutes, at Landmark's Bethesda Row and E Street theaters only) is rated PG-13 for thematic material.

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