Stage to screen can go either way. When “Chicago” hit the theaters in 2002 it had even tough guys doing jazz hands. But RENT came and went without even a blip on the radar screen. And as for MAMMA MIA, everyone loves Abba, but that love was tested when we had to hear Pierce Brosnan singing it. But those are musicals, and the big sweeping set pieces and dance numbers are given possibilities in movies that are somewhat limited on a stage. A drama, like DOUBT or the other critically-acclaimed FROST/NIXON, has a simple set, so the big payoff has to come from the actors. As luck would have it, DOUBT cornered the market on the best in the business.
The second Meryl Streep walks on the set of DOUBT as Sister Aloysius, Catholic Fear, along with its trusty sidekick Crushing Guilt, strike viewers of every denomination. She is the principal of a Catholic school who rules with an iron hand (no rulers were used in the filming of this picture), and Streep exudes that authority from every pore. This strict disciplinary attitude is not directed solely at the students, either, as witnessed in her strict adherence to table etiquette when it’s just the Sisters of Charity eating dinner together. In stark contrast is Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Father Flynn. PSH plays the part as the priest that actually makes parishioners look forward to Sundays. He is affable, tells comic parables complete with funny accents in his sermons, and has a genuine concern for the students, even when they behave badly.
Caught in the middle of these two is Sister James played by the saucer-eyed Amy Adams. She is a teacher at the school who admires the respect Sister Aloyisius commands. Adams plays the medium between Hoffman and Streep as the rope in a tug of war, and she plays that tension with her voice and with every slight tremble under her habit. She likes Father Flynn’s rapport of cheerfulness with everyone, but is afraid it may have gone over the line with the school’s only black student, Donald Miller. The viewer is allowed to be tugged along with Sister James as we also go back and forth as to guilt and innocence. Meanwhile, Sister Aloyisius plays the part of pit bull prosecutor, and the scenes between Hoffman and Streep are an exercise in putting two great actors in front of a camera and letting them just play.
Viola Davis has a brief but strong performance as Donald’s mother, and she adds her part to this strong showcase of acting, however, while the great strength of the film is the acting, John Patrick Shanley, as the director of his play, was too excited to do things here he can’t do onstage. Foreboding winds and other acts of symbolic set design are too heavy handed and feel forced. But such zeal can be forgiven… as it must have been easy to get excited seeing such great actors performing his play.