Whatever else it is, John Patrick Shanley's movie of his Pulitzer- and Tony-winning play Doubt is an acting tour de force. On Broadway, the roles of the two nuns, the priest and the mother all earned their performers Tony Award nominations; Oscar nods should be distributed similarly.
Much has been written about the performances of Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Viola Davis, and deservedly so, but Amy Adams as the wide-eyed younger nun shouldn't be overlooked, either. She's terrific, and necessarily so, since in many ways Sister James is the pivotal character. In their high-stakes struggle against one another, Sister Aloysius and Father Brendan both work hard to sway Sister James' sympathies. Each succeeds, in part -- one more than the other -- but in the process, we get to watch Sister James, who is somewhat unformed at the outset, decide who she intends to be. The movie is dedicated to a Sister Margaret James, Shanley's kindergarten teacher, and the play -- corrosive as it is, at times -- must have been written in part as a tribute to her. Without an utterly convincing Sister James, the story wouldn't work nearly as well. Is there anyone alive who can portray innocence as believably as Amy Adams (witness Junebug and Enchanted)? She was robbed of an Oscar nomination for Enchanted; I hope she isn't robbed this time.
A scene in the middle of the movie, in which the two nuns and the priest are having an awkward tea and an even more awkward conversation, could be shown to acting students as a master class. Watch each performer, and you see reflected not only the character's inner life, but how the character is responding, moment to moment, to the other two characters. The dialogue sometimes reflects these responses, sometimes not, but the primary communication is through line delivery and facial expressions and body language. It's like the embodiment of the character matrix I draw on the chalkboard for my fiction-writing students (having stolen it from John Kessel): What does Sister Aloysius think of Father Brendan at this moment? What does she think of Sister James? What do Brendan and James think of Aloysius? What do Brendan and James think of each other? And so forth.
The movie is also interesting as a genre exercise. Only when it was over did I realize that among many other things, Doubt is an exceedingly well-disguised mystery play, with an artificially limited cast of characters and point of view, a set of clues to be gnawed over, a set of conflicts to erupt, a series of reversals to spring like traps on both characters and audience. It's Twelve Angry Men; it's Sleuth.
Whenever I watch a movie full of Catholic priests and nuns, I think about how visual and cinematic Catholicism is -- which is why Catholic themes outnumber Protestant ones 10 to 1, in movies that treat organized Christianity with any seriousness at all. While watching Doubt, I also found myself realizing that it would be a very different movie if I were Catholic -- devout or casual, current or former -- and if I ever had attended a Catholic school. Sister Aloysius had no parallel in my young life, at W. Wyman King Academy or St. John's United Methodist Church.