As a taut exercise in suspense and carefully plotted “ambiguity,” John Patrick Shanley’s play Doubt deserved its acclaim. It worked on stage, even if the lauded performances of Cherry Jones and Brían F. O’Byrne seemed a touch broad (their outer-borough accents were laid on with a shovel). The play was basically a boxing match between Jones’s steely Sister Aloysius and O’Byrne’s charismatic priest, and though there was chatter in the press about whether or not the priest actually molested a boy at his parish, it was very clear from the start of the play that he had. The most daring scene in Doubt is Sister Aloysius’s brief but harrowing meeting with the molested boy’s mother, played by Adriane Lenox, who rightly won a Tony for her riveting work. In just a few minutes, Lenox delivered a kaleidoscopic portrait of an upbeat, desperate woman who knows everything that is going on with her son and makes a startling case for the good the priest might be doing him. That scene was the hinge of the whole evening and its most genuine claim to intriguing drama.
In the film version of Doubt, which Shanley has written and directed, Viola Davis has been given Lenox’s small, pivotal, virtuoso role. Davis plays it very differently than the quicksilver Lenox; she’s stealthy and cautious, and her presence fills the screen with a rage that she can barely contain. The scene is still impressive, but it doesn’t carry the weight that it did on stage, partly because Shanley has made the mistake of “opening out” his own play by chopping up their meeting into an introduction in Sister Aloysius’s office and then a long walk outside in the autumn air. Worse than this, Shanley dissipates the strength of his material throughout by cutting it up into shot/reverse-shot talking bouts, so that the actors can’t build the necessary tension together.
Casting Philip Seymour Hoffman as the priest is a radical error; it feels like almost a perverse bit of sabotage. For the all-important scene with the mother to work, the priest needs to be a charming, seductive man, something Hoffman refuses to attempt; the role needs a Russell Crowe, or a Jeff Bridges. As it stands, we can only cringe at his character’s sodden duplicity and hope that his head will someday explode with all his pent-up anguish; I cannot be alone in my wish to never have to endure Hoffman having a noisy, self-indulgent tantrum in close-up on screen ever again. Conversely, Amy Adams is perfect as the young, trusting Sister James, while acting students are sure to marvel at Meryl Streep’s portrayal of Sister Aloysius, a watchful, red-eyed mother hen who knows she has to bluff and resort to dirty-pool tactics to get rid of this force of evil in her midst.
In her scenes with Hoffman, Streep is understandably flustered and cowed by his mammoth overacting, and in their last confrontation he succeeds in shouting her into submission. But she has rarely been as vulnerable on screen as she is in several moments here, not least her fully felt declaration of doubt at the conclusion of the film. Doubt doesn’t work fully on screen as it did on stage, but it’s worth seeing for Streep’s grace notes. Watch for the moment when she mentions her husband who died in World War II; almost any other actress would have shown us a flash of grief, or a stiffening sort of proud stoicism, but what does Streep do? She tugs at her black nun bonnet, irritably! As Stella Adler said, your talent as an actor is in your choices, and Streep’s choices are as fresh and penetrating in Doubt as they were 30 years ago in The Deer Hunter.