A passionate liberal priest goes toe-to-toe with an inflexible, authoritarian mother superior in John Patrick Shanley's theatrical barnburner "Doubt." Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep) has decided, with little evidence but her unyielding moral certitude, that the charismatic Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) has been paying "inappropriate" attention to Donald Stewart, the first black student at the St. Nicholas school in the Bronx. (The year is 1964, and the times they are a-changin'.) Did he or didn't he? This question hangs over the battle royal that ensues, as the stern Sister mounts a wily crusade to have Father Flynn thrown out of her school and Flynn fights to bring new ideas into the musty hallways of St. Nicholas.
Shanley, directing his own work, throws in a few cinematic flourishes—he's big on tilted angles—but they only reinforce "Doubt's" theatrical nature. It's a meaty showcase for its stars. Streep, with her no-nonsense Bronx accent and know-it-all smirks, gives this battleaxe a sly wit: she may be working too hard, but she's fun to watch. Hoffman makes a worthy, sympathetic foe, but it's Viola Davis as Donald's mother who gets the most striking scene. Her reaction to Sister Aloysius's suggestion that Father Flynn is taking advantage of her boy is not at all what the sister, or we, expect. "Doubt" stirs up a lot of stormy theatrical weather, but the stolid transfer from stage to screen does Shanley's play no favors. It states its Big Themes eloquently, but, really, does it have anything interesting to say about them?