At first glance, a morose drama called Doubt centered on a few nuns and a priest at a catholic school seems more like a Lifetime Original Movie than an Academy Award Best Picture contender. Yet as the story unfolds, it becomes clear that Doubt is about more than a scandal and a bitter old nun, but delves deeply into the danger of legalism, the trouble with school and church politics, and the irreparable destructive power of gossip. Although Doubt may seem straightforward enough, the simplicity of the story and its outstanding cast are its greatest strengths, inviting the viewer to assess the situation presented with minimal information, try to draw conclusions, and then doubt the truth of what has been heard.
Doubt is carried by three strong performances and sold by one brief supporting role. Meryl Streep's sterling turn as Sister Aloysius is immaculately merciless as she steers the plot vehicle through the levels of suspicion, accusation, and doubt. From the first moment that Aloysius turns her face towards the camera to reprimand a boy for sleeping in church, the hardness in her voice and eyes pierce straight through the screen, setting the tone of her unshakeable hostile piety. She stands in stark contrast to the naïve warm and fuzzy young Sister James (excellently played by Amy Adams), who bubbles over with love for students and history. While Aloysius refuses to believe anything, Sister James seems ready to believe anything, completely scandalized by the idea that even a thirteen year old boy might lie to get out of class. As the conflict unfolds, Aloysius loses none of her edge, but Sister James gradually finds herself less cheery as she begins to feel the full weight of the trouble she has been part of.
Audiences expect flawless portrayals from Meryl Streep, but it takes a very strong male lead to hold his own against the iconic actress, and Philip Seymour Hoffman does this masterfully. His part is the most difficult of the characters because his purposes and motivations remain undefined throughout the entire movie. Even as the credits roll it is uncertain if Father Flynn is truly guilty or not. The movie does not seek to answer this question, so Hoffman must portray Father Flynn in such a way that either option could be true; Hoffman does this with absolutely stunning skill. He shows himself a likable priest with a sense of humor and a progressive proclivity, with just enough mystery to his character to be suspicious. He is the absolute opposite of Sister Aloysius, and their scenes together are easily the most intense as their stark differences battle ferociously. One particular scene involving the two characters talking privately soars as the old nun screams her determination to do what is necessary to condemn the priest, even if it breaks her vows.
The genius of Doubt is in the writing. Very few movies could take a seemingly drab plot and using only dialogue, keep the viewers on the edges of their seats. While the movie deals with the possibility of an inappropriate relationship between a priest and a young male student, the subject matter is handled with such decorum and discretion that the implications would be entirely lost on younger innocent viewers. Throughout the movie, even as Aloysius hurls ugly accusations at Father Flynn, the expository language is never more explicit than merely "inappropriate relationship." The audience will never hear the words pedophile, molester, sexual abuse, or homosexual, even though these things are all dealt with as part of the central conflict of the movie.
Exquisite performances and impeccable writing are key players in creating the doubt as to whether or not Father Flynn is guilty. What is shown and discreetly not shown give enough evidence to support either view, while still not fully answering the question. Viewers that suspect he may be a lecherous pedophile will see the logic in the accusations of Sister Aloysius, while viewers who are convinced of his innocence will empathize with Sister James. All three of these characters are crucial in selling the story and forcing the viewer to not just watch attentively, but participate in the frustration, anger, suspicion, grief, and regret. While any one of the actors might have out-shined the other, they all work together to form a strong and stirring ensemble. The brief appearance of Viola Davis as Mrs. Miller functions as a cherry on top as it were, being a shining moment of emotion amidst the many complex levels that are explored throughout the course of the film.
By the time the final scene finds Aloysius breaking down and showing a faint glimmer of humanity, there is nothing left but as the title suggests, doubt. There is doubt as to whether Father Flynn got off easy for hideous actions, or was the victim of a series of traps laid by an unyielding and determined nun. There is doubt about Sister Aloysius and her methods of handling the entire situation, manipulating the facts to reach a definite end. There is doubt about Sister James and what she really saw that day that began the scandal. The final lines gasped by Aloysius deliver one last punch, leaving the viewer to draw their own conclusions, but also leaving that feeling that whatever side the viewer has decided on, they ought to doubt their perceptions.