"Of all religions," Voltaire noted, "Christianity is without a doubt the one that should inspire tolerance most, although, up to now, the Christians have been the most intolerant of all men."
Playwright John Patrick Stanley, best known for his screenplay Moonstruck, would possibly soften that quote to "some Christians have been among the most intolerant." Doubt, his screen adaptation of his critically acclaimed, Pulitzer-Prize-winning Broadway show, tells of an intolerant nun with a vendetta against a priest who doesn't embrace the certainty of faith with the same unyielding hold she does.
The locale is Parkchester in the Bronx. The school is St. Nicholas. The year is 1964, and the Kennedy assassination still resonates.
Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Meryl Streep), the principal of St. Nicholas, is distinctly antediluvian in manner. Students who chat in class or in church can be assured of a smack on the head. Ballpoint pens are considered ungodly. And singing "Frosty the Snowman," the Christmas perennial, is the first step towards the embrace of paganism.
Meanwhile, the goodly Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) could be a stand-in for Spencer Tracy's Father Flanagan in Boys Town (1932). He lives for his students, he espouses the need for a progressive revamping of the school's basic tenets, and he feels the Church should place no barriers between the clergy and its parishioners.
Father Flynn's vices: three sugars in his tea, smoking, ballpoint pens, and longish fingernails.
Enter trouble: the school's first black student, Donald Miller (Joseph Foster II).
One day Father Flynn calls Miller from the history class of Sister James (Amy Adams) to the rectory. The boy eventually returns, seemingly depressed and with alcohol on his breath.
Worse, Sister James later observes Father Flynn placing Miller's undershirt in the boy's locker.
Did something pervy happen in the rectory? Sister James is not quite sure, yet she mentions her concerns to Sister Aloysius. Let the cat-and-mouse games begin. Can innuendo become fact?
And with this cast, can a laudatory play not easily reap a celluloid ecclesiastical bonanza?
Truly, few actors can be as deliciously ferocious as Streep can. Her Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada (2006) is one of screendom's most lovable villains. As for Hoffman, has he ever made a misstep in any role where his character has a broken soul?
Yet, for all the powerhouse performances here -- especially the Oscar-worthy Viola Davis as Miller's mom and the too-little-used Alice Drummond as a nun going blind -- this production at times feels formulaic and heavy-handed.
Weather is often employed as in a third-rate Victorian novel. Beware of heavy rains and violent winds. Leaves, feathers, and snow each also take a hefty metaphoric bow. As for the two sparking light bulbs above Sister Aloysius's desk, one wonders how God would work nowadays with the new fluorescents.
Inarguably, the film's structural and visual faults lie with Stanley, whose only previous directorial effort for the screen was the clubfooted Joe vs. the Volcano (1990). Some writers should stay writers.
Stylistically awkward, the film is still applause-worthy for its absorbing exploration of the plight of a religion's disciples battling to keep their beliefs alive while coping with a society in transition and their own personal frailties. Reminiscent of Mary Gordon's novel The Company of Women, Doubt, which apparently reached the heavens on stage, is a bit too leaden on the screen to get past the clouds. - Brandon Judell
Mr. Judell, who's currently teaching "Contemporary Israeli/Palestinian Cinema" at City College, has written on film for The Village Voice, indieWire, Detour, and dozens of other publications.