In 1964 at St. Nicholas in the Bronx, charismatic Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman), is trying to modernise the schools' strict customs, which have long been fiercely guarded by Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Meryl Streep), the iron-gloved Principal who believes in the power of fear and discipline. The school has just accepted its first black student, Donald Muller (Joseph Foster). But when Sister James (Amy Adams), a hopeful innocent, shares with Sister Aloysius her suspicion that Father Flynn is paying too much (unhealthy) personal attention to Donald, Sister Aloysius sets off on a personal crusade to unearth the truth and to expunge Flynn from the school.
What do you do when you’re not sure? A socially progressive new pastor asks this of his flock in the opening scenes of John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt, in a dramatic device that paves the way for a broad range of responses from individuals plagued by doubt.
In 1964 Father Flynn's (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) timely invitation to critical thinking takes in the vast range of social, political and religious changes gripping the country, from civil rights reforms to the implementation of Vatican II. But little does he know that the sermon will threaten his own career, setting off as it does, a chain of events that will cast considerable doubts about his relationship with a young altar boy.
School principal Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Meryl Streep) is a no-nonsense taskmaster who rules with an iron glove and doesn’t take kindly to the winds of change that are blowing through the Church as a whole, and the St Nicholas parish in particular. She eyes the newly arrived parish priest with deep suspicion once it becomes apparent that his progressive social and religious values clash with her own ultra-conservative commitment to tradition and unquestioning belief in the Gospel.
Neither the aforementioned 'radical' sermons, nor the priest's laidback folksy manner with the boys, sit well with Sister Aloysius. She doubts his character, and encourages her good sisters to keep a watchful eye on him.
Enter Amy Adams as an impressionable young nun, whose disciplinary methods are considerably more lax than her mentor's (she overlooks the use of ballpoint pens in the classroom, for instance, and struggles to maintain authority). When she notices that Father Flynn has taken a special interest in the well being of the school's first black student, Donald, she expresses her doubts to Sister Aloysius. Her brief comments are hardly accusatory but they're enough to let the genie out of the bottle. Sister Aloysius doesn't have time for doubts; she relies on certainty to make everything in her life possible: faith, commitment, and a reign of terror that keeps the unruly boys of St Nicholas on the straight and narrow. A whiff of scandal is all the proof she needs, and her certainty clears her conscience of any philosophical mud she'll have to sling at the (supposedly) guilty priest.
To his credit, Hoffman plays Father Flynn with sufficient ambiguity to lend weight to both the allegation and his defence. But Streep steals the show as the tough talking mother superior. It's a role she gives her all and it's a welcome return to form (let's hope the religious overtones encouraged her to say a few Hail Marys for Mamma Mia!). Scenes in which she and Hoffman trade barbs are a standout, and in her tough 'Brawnx' accent, she gets to land some zingers on the flabbergasted padre:
Hoffman: "Where's your compassion?"
Streep: "Nowhere you can get at it."
Viola Davis' screen time is brief but she is unforgettable as Donald's mother, called to the school to learn that her son may be the victim of sexual abuse. Her restrained reaction to the news shocks the forthright Sister Aloysius but is entirely appropriate to the setting – in 1964, blind rage isn't an option for an African American woman just trying to get by and forge a better future for her son. Her slow unravelling into quiet devastation adds a new layer to the narrative and Davis deserves every accolade that comes her way for the performance.
There’s much to recommend Doubt, save for a few slightly gimmicky touches from the director: cue the cold, near-gale force winds (of change) that send a chill through the suspicious sister; cue a series of exploding light globes, and a cat catching a mouse at key plot points; and cue the off-kilter shot composition to depict a character's skewed perspective. The literalism is unnecessary and the symbolism is heavy handed but when you're dealing with a clash of ideologies in the Catholic Church, I suppose the injection of a little divine intervention can be forgiven.