Go ahead, jump to conclusions. Force your prejudices on other people. Insist that Iraq is hiding weapons of mass destruction. Wait, wrong argument. Doubt, based on John Patrick Shanley’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 2005 drama, is about a different kind of politics. Set in a Catholic school in the Bronx in 1964, Doubt deals with a nascent war between Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Meryl Streep), the principal, and Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the parish priest. Since Streep and Hoffman are two of the best actors on the planet, expect fireworks. Chatting with boys in the schoolyard, Father Flynn spies the nun watching him from above. “The dragon looks hungry today,” he says with a grin that the good sister is determined to wipe off his face.
Sister Aloysius believes that Father Flynn is behaving inappropriately with altar boy Donald Muller (Joseph Foster II), the first-ever African-American student at the St. Nicholas School. Evidence: Young Sister James (Amy Adams) reported that an upset Donald returned to her eighth-grade class, after a meeting with Father Flynn, with altar wine on his breath. Sister Aloysius doesn’t like Father Flynn. She doesn’t like his progressive views or his sermons on the impossibility of certainty in the world or his camaraderie with the monsignor and other men of the church who believe women (nuns) should know their place. In 1964, sex-abuse scandals were regularly swept under the carpet. In ’05, when Shanley’s play was first produced, those scandals were the stuff of headlines and lawsuits. What if stern, unbending Sister Aloysius — her tongue as sharp as her wit — is right? It’s an explosive situation, and Shanley shapes it with a keen ear for the power of words. You think you’re sure. And then you’re not. Is the movie as good as the play? No, it’s better. The suspense crackles, and the arguments cut deeper. Shanley, directing for the first time since 1990’s unfairly maligned Joe Versus the Volcano, opens up his play, making it less academic and more human. He takes us inside the rectory and the convent. The bold vigor of his direction matches his writing, which is a high compliment. The great cinematographer Roger Deakins (No Country for Old Men) brings a lyrical poignancy to an image of the nuns in white nightgowns, silently awakening at dawn, and later to Father Flynn embracing Donald in a corridor, his compassion for the troubled boy exceeding his fears of the talk his gesture will spark.
Shanley stays alert to the loneliness in his main characters. And the actors could not be better or more sensitive to his intentions. Viola Davis will blow your head around six ways from Sunday as Mrs. Muller, Donald’s mother, a woman who knows her son in ways that leave Sister Aloysius speechless. In just one scene of the two women walking on a wintry day, the brilliant Davis gives a performance that will be talked about for years. Adams excels as the naive nun who tries to keep her balance on shifting moral ground. But it’s hard to tear your attention from the center ring, where the two protagonists try to put the other on the ropes. Hoffman nails every nuance in a complex role. And Streep is unmissable and unforgettable, finding the bruised heart of a female warrior who knows what a monster she can seem and readily exploits it. You may have doubts about which side to choose, but there’s no doubt about this mind-bender. It’ll pin you to your seat.