"Where’s your compassion?” asks Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Father Flynn in John Patrick Shanley’s riveting film version of his Pulitzer-winning play.
“Nowhere you can get at it!” sneers Meryl Streep’s Sister Aloysius Beauvier, the straight-laced principal of the Catholic school that forms the setting for their titanic battle of wills.
It’s 1964 in the Bronx, Kennedy’s killing is still an open wound and the winds of change are blowing both literally and metaphorically.
But for stern nun Streep, the old ways are a hard habit to break, especially when that change comes in the form of a priest whose sweet tooth, long nails and penchant for Bible-pressed flowers immediately mark him out as someone not to be trusted.
What Shanley does, brilliantly, is plant subtle seeds of doubt that make us, like Meryl and meek young novice Amy Adams, wonder if Hoffman is indeed all he seems.
Is his kindness towards the school’s only black pupil just natural empathy for a fellow outsider? Or does it hide a more predatory purpose
Sister Aloysius unsurprisingly suspects the latter, taking it upon herself to engineer Flynn’s exposure. Is she on the right track, though? Or is she merely embodying the prejudices of a rigidity as out of place in ’60s America as her bonnet?
Better stop here if you like movies to show, not tell. For all its attempts to incorporate the other nuns and the surrounding neighbourhood, Doubt remains a defiantly stagebound affair that uses well-crafted dialogue to create tension and conflict.
Streep and Hoffman are superbly matched, while Adams brings a touching sincerity to her wide-eyed innocent.
As fine as they are, however, it’s Viola Davis who shines brightest, her solitary scene as the boy’s anguished mother automatically giving her pole position in this year’s supporting actress race.
Though Shanley’s first film as director since 1990 flop Joe Versus The Volcano never strays far from its theatrical origins, his unfussy direction and compelling script provide a perfect platform for his talented cast.