Award winning plays don’t always make for great cinema – too much dialogue, too little motion and a certain tightness brought on by the story’s origins necessarily enclosing ideas and relationships in a small space. Doubt – playwright Patrick Shanley’s directorial debut – just about manages to escape these traps, thanks to Shanley’s own carefully constructed writing and three superb performances.
Phillip Seymour Hoffman is Father Flynn, a priest who lives and works at a Catholic School in 1960’s New York. He’s a warm and caring man with an ambition to modernise the school’s approach to teaching. Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep) has other ideas. A stickler for the way things should be, for discipline and self-sacrifice, she asks her flock of nuns – including naïve newcomer Sister James (Amy Adams) – to keep an eye on Father Flynn and to report anything unusual. When Sister James notices Father Flynn taking an interest in young black alter boy Donald (Joseph Foster) she feels compelled to tell her superior, and Sister Aloysius then decides to pursue Father Flynn for the truth.
It’s a cat-and-mouse game of power and posture, played out by two of the finest actors of the moment. Seymour Hoffman is delicate and likeable as the man under increasing pressure and scrutiny, where Streep is dangerous and determined. In the course of her investigation, the nature of truth and the value of searching to find it at all costs is neatly dissected by Shanley. He does however, want for more cinematic imagery: when the few stylish moments of the cinema’s big screen art do come (a tilted frame here and a sky full of feathers there), they seem obviously tacked on as afterthoughts to a complex play that has won a swag of awards for its clever dialog and theatrical structure.
Amy Adams adds considerable weight to the story – playing the trusting soul – perhaps the everyman – who finds confrontation with the truth – in particular with a subject as delicate as paedophilia – too much to bear.