On the stage, John Patrick Shanley’s “Doubt” was a tightly efficient little thinking-man’s thriller, set at a Bronx Catholic parish in 1964 in the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council, about a young, liberal priest suspected by a hard-nosed old nun of improper advances toward a boy in the parish school. It’s a battle of words and wills which the implacable principal is determined to win by ridding her little domain of a man she considers dangerous both for his views and his personal predilections. And, of course, it carries as subtext the issues of the church’s patriarchal organization and of the hierarchy’s protection of abusive priests that are far more urgent today than they were forty-five years ago.
Shanley’s adaptation of his play for the screen boasts an impressive cast, and understandably sticks almost obsessively to the text of the Pulitzer Prize-winning original. But it also attempts to “open up” the four-character piece in terms of both locations and surrounding hubbub, and inevitably throws the big confrontational sequences into sharper relief with extreme close-ups. And by doing so it not only makes the story simpler and more explicit, but less compelling. Ironically, by bringing us closer to the action—or more properly, the argument—the film diminishes the play’s impact, as well as accentuating the overly histrionic elements of the performances.
A major problem in the move from stage to screen is, in fact, what should be one of its greatest strengths: the presence of Meryl Streep as the brusque, authoritarian Sister Aloysius. In shaping the character, Streep chooses to go too far in the direction of caricature, not only adopting a thick New York accent but constantly going in for exaggerated facial gestures (accentuated by the odd little bonnet that frames them), perhaps because the use of the rest of her body is somewhat restricted by the habit she wears. It’s certainly amusing to watch her deal with fidgety, trouble-making students or lord it over the other nuns in her charge (or, alternately, treat them on occasion with surprising kindness), but it all seems very much an outward performance rather than an immersion in the inner life of a character.
By contrast, Hoffman effectively uses restraint to paint a portrait of a clergyman who may well recognize that he must be circumspect—Sister Aloysius, after all, could be quite correct about him. He’s particularly good delivering the sermons that the nun finds a mite troubling, and equally so in his initial jousts with the principal. As their confrontations ratchet up, however, and Father Flynn’s outwardly confident veneer begins to crack under her assaults, Hoffman too veers toward overstatement, especially when Shanley’s penchant for close-ups takes hold. The scenes between him and the boy in question, twelve-year old Donald Miller (Joseph Foster II), the only African-American in the school (which adds another element to the dramatic mix, of course), are also problematic. The youngster was an offstage presence in the play, of course, and while it was inevitable that he’d be represented in the opened-up school environment of a realistic film, there’s clumsiness in Shanley’s treatment of him that rubs off on Hoffman’s performance too.
There are two other characters from the original script, the young nun Sister James who’s essentially the confused link between her convent superior and the priest, and Donald’s mother, from whom Sister Aloysius learns some troubling information when she calls her in for a conference. In the former role, Amy Adams certainly catches the necessary tone of nervous innocence and uncertainty about whom to side with, but there’s little depth or resonance to her turn. By contrast in a relatively short span Viola Davis brings a ferocious sense of pained reality to Mrs. Miller, in unhappy contrast to the affectation that Streep manages in conversation with her. The rest of the cast—a gaggle of nuns and students—are like human furniture, merely populating the broader setting that Shanley had to add in turning a spare theatrical piece into a fully-populated movie. That setting is, however, well rendered in proper period terms by production designer David Gropman, art director Peter Rogness and set decorator Ellen Christiansen, as well as by costume designer Ann Roth (even if those bonnets seem more Amish than Catholic). And the film is elegantly shot by Roger Deakins, though his work elsewhere has had more character.
On screen “Doubt” still raises the same engrossing issues it did on stage; it just does so less effectively. Perhaps the essentially talky theatricality of the play would have been insurmountable in any case. But while one can appreciate Shanley’s desire to retain control of his material by directing it for the screen, the sad fact is that it might have been better served by someone with a clearer vision and stronger control than he evinces. As it is the picture is not without its virtues, but its potential isn’t fully realized in the execution.