For a film about moral ambiguity, "Doubt" does an awful lot of hand-holding. Philip Seymour Hoffman's character, a charismatic, mavericky Catholic priest, is obviously a good guy, even though he's suspected of sexually abusing a male student.
He drinks and smokes and plays basketball. He cares about the students' feelings at St. Nicholas - a rare feat, it seems, in the Bronx in 1964.
Meryl Streep, as the St. Nicholas principal, is obviously the villain for her unflappable certitude and fearsome authoritarianism. She doesn't even allow her teachers to keep cough drops in their desks: "Candy by another name," she calls it. She harps on penmanship in that unforgiving New York accent and flinches at the sight of a barrette in a female student's hair.
None of the above is ever in question as writer-director John Patrick Shanley brings his Pulitzer Prize-winning play to the screen.
Shanley, whose only previous directing effort was 1990's "Joe Versus the Volcano," lacks the ability as a filmmaker to wring much nuance out of his own material in cinematic form. He relies too heavily on off-kilter camera angles and obvious symbolism to suggest turmoil - a torrential storm that churns leaves and snaps tree branches, for example - rather than allowing the story's innate tension to play out for itself.
As if we didn't get it, Streep's Sister Aloyisius Beauvier must then comment on the wild weather: "I've never known a wind like it," she remarks. "The wind has changed." One can safely assume she's not really talking about the wind.
She's talking about Hoffman's Father Flynn, who is kind and popular and therefore a threat to her total domination. When the young, naive Sister James (Amy Adams) thinks she sees something suspicious involving Father Flynn and Donald Miller (Joseph Foster II), the school's first black student, she reports it to Sister Aloyisius, who's only too pleased to seize on this juicy tidbit of information and quickly pass judgment.
She has absolutely no doubt. And in case we were unsure of what "Doubt" is about, Shanley opens with Father Flynn delivering a sermon on the subject. Nothing subtle about that, and it only grows more heavy-handed from there until it builds to its crescendo: A screechy, repetitive screaming match in which Sister Aloyisius finally confronts Father Flynn, with decibels intended to reach the balcony. ("Doubt" is beautiful to look at, though, with its clean, clear outdoor light and warm interiors, the work of the always-great cinematographer Roger Deakins.)
While Hoffman keeps you guessing as to the extent of his character's creepiness, Streep is really acting here. You can see the sausage being made, but at least it's an amusing process. She's just withering as Sister Aloyisius, knocking down her students and fellow nuns alike with everything from a roll of the eyes to a smack on the back of the head.
Adams has some lovely small moments as Sister James, who's torn between her inherent inclination to believe the good in Father Flynn and her allegiance to the skeptical Sister Aloyisius. But Viola Davis has one great scene as the mother of the boy in question - one that provides much-needed context and unexpected perspective.
"Doubt," a Miramax Films release, is rated PG-13 for thematic material. Running time: 104 minutes. Two stars out of four.