John Patrick Shanley's prize-winning 2005 play "Doubt," which has been brought to the screen under his own direction, is essentially an ensemble of voices. The two loudest belong to Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Meryl Streep), the principal of the Roman Catholic St. Nicholas school in the Bronx, and to parish priest Father Brendan Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Sister Aloysius, like the other nuns, is bonneted and wears a voluminous habit. She represents, in Shanley's view, the bedrock traditionalism of the church, and she rules her roost with a disciplinarian's zeal. (She even bans the use of ballpoint pens in the school.) Father Flynn is her free-thinking adversary. The time is 1964, when the progressivism of priests such as Father Flynn was coming to the fore.
It is also a time when the sexual abuse of minors in the church was still largely kept under wraps. The possibility of "inappropriate behavior" at St. Nicholas is the crux of "Doubt," and the title says it all. The film, in fact, opens with Father Flynn's sermon on the nature of doubt – how doubt can sometimes be as intellectually sustaining as certainty. He himself comes under Sister Aloysius's laserlike scrutiny when Sister James (Amy Adams) reports back to her that he may have taken sexual liberties with Donald (Joseph Foster II), his altar boy and the school's first black student.
Despite the fact that Sister Aloysius accuses Father Flynn of abuse based on the flimsiest of evidence, Shanley isn't interested in demonizing her. Neither is he interested in sanctifying Father Flynn, no matter how sympathetic the parish priest might come across compared with his tormentor. The moral compass of "Doubt" is continually spinning. Shanley never makes clear to us whether Sister Aloysius is correct in her intuitions about the priest. He converts their drawn-out battle into a kind of cosmic whodunit.
As such, there may be less here than meets the eye – and ear. (Despite Shanley's attempts to "open up" his play, it remains essentially a marathon talkfest.) Shanley doesn't really explore the unknowability of truth. He displays it. His did-he-or-didn't-he dramaturgy is riveting and gives off a lot of heat. Two of our finest actors raise the roof, and that's a spectacle not worth missing. But philosophically, if not dramatically, Shanley's approach is reductive. By dancing around Father Flynn's culpability, he's teasing us with weighty issues of moral ambiguity. If he had come down squarely on one side or the other, he might have provided us with more than an exalted guessing game.
Still, the material works smashingly well on its own terms. Shanley certainly knows how to mount dramatic tension; every hesitation, every sidelong glance is charged with meaning. At first, Streep's performance might seem too mannered and preconceived but, then again, she is playing a highly mannered martinet. It's impossible to separate the technique of the actress from Sister Aloysius's iron will.
In the past, Streep, great as she is, often seemed armored by her phenomenal facility. She had everything a performer could hope for – except spontaneity. But she has opened up her acting in the past few years and let down her guard. (I'm thinking of performances in such films as "The Hours," "Adaptation," and "A Prairie Home Companion.") Despite outward appearances, I think her work in "Doubt" is likewise unfettered. To call her work as Sister Aloysius stagey is to miss the point: For this nun, all the world's a stage.
Hoffman is equally remarkable. It would have been easy for him to play Father Flynn as a wronged crusader. Instead, he injects just enough ambiguity to make it maddeningly obvious that Sister Aloysius might be right. Delivering his sermons, he is the resolute champion of the dispossessed that he always wanted to be. In private, he's roiled by the contradictions of his character, of his faith.
There is a third major performance in "Doubt." As the mother of the altar boy, Viola Davis has only one scene, during which Sister Aloysius passes along her suspicions about Father Flynn. Davis plays the moment with such unbridled force that it resonates like a gong throughout the rest of the movie. It's a searing playlet all by itself.
With its carefully calibrated three-act structure and its prestige-picture emphasis on the Big Issues, "Doubt" is an anomaly in the current moviescape. But old-fashioned is not the same thing as old hat. Along with its disappointments and its narrowness of intellectual focus, "Doubt" offers up the crackling pleasures of performance and a narrative that snaps shut like a mousetrap. It's the movie equivalent of a rousing night at the theater. Grade: B+ (Rated PG-13 for thematic material.)