Adapting stage plays into movies is a tricky business: Fail to open up the play enough for a different medium, and it's bound to be derided as stagy and insufficiently cinematic. Open it up too much, and its essence may be lost to overwrought effect. In bringing his Pulitzer Prize-winning play Doubt to the screen, writer-director John Patrick Shanley somehow manages to stumble on both counts: The film doesn't go far enough to transcend its stage roots, yet the few stylistic chances it takes—mainly in the form of tilted camera angles—are distracting in the extreme. Yet its failings as cinema aren't enough to obscure the richness and thematic breadth of the material, which astutely examines issues of faith, justice, hypocrisy, change, and, yes, doubt within the Catholic Church.
Though loaded with contemporary resonances, Doubt takes place in a Catholic church and school in the Bronx in 1964, shortly after the Second Vatican Council introduced new reforms to an institution that was notoriously reluctant to change. As head nun and school principal, Meryl Streep sternly enforces the rigors of old, making her a fearsome taskmaster to students and the sheepish sisters who serve as instructors. Naturally, Streep feels threatened when young, energetic new priest Philip Seymour Hoffman seeks to liberalize the church and attract more parishioners. Streep finds the wedge she's looking for when a new teacher (Amy Adams) informs her of a potentially improper private encounter in the rectory between Hoffman and the school's only black student. Given the information that the student came back troubled and smelling of wine, Streep draws her own conclusions.
Shanley hasn't directed a film since his vastly underrated flop Joe Versus The Volcano, and the differences between the two are telling: Joe was conceived for the screen, and it teems with visual imagination and whimsy, from the industrial hellscape that opens the film to the orange-soda-abundant paradise that ends it. Doubt was written for the stage; Dutch tilts aside, Shanley mostly feels inclined to stay out of his own way and let the actors and the material carry the load. Streep's glowering battleaxe takes some getting used to, since she often skirts the line of broad caricature, but Streep pulls back with a couple of strong late scenes, including a unforgettable exchange with the student's mother (Viola Davis). Hoffman is even better as a priest who lobbies for a more open-minded church, yet isn't himself entirely transparent. Doubt is a complex, thematically loaded piece of work, and though it isn't enhanced on film, it deserves the wider exposure.