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Originally published December 19, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified December 19, 2008 at 3:40 AM

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Movie review

"Doubt": Meryl Streep is at the eye of a stormy morality tale

Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Viola Davis and Amy Adams deliver remarkable performances in "Doubt." Review by Moira Macdonald.

Seattle Times movie critic

Movie review 3.5 stars

"Doubt,"with Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Viola Davis. Written and directed by John Patrick Shanley, based on his play. 104 minutes. Rated PG-13 for thematic material. Guild 45th, Meridian, Lincoln Square.

The winds rattle the windows of St. Nicholas School in a melodramatic frenzy in John Patrick Shanley's "Doubt," but they're nothing compared with the force that is Meryl Streep.

As the sharp-eyed, unforgiving nun Sister Aloysius, Streep pulls out a new accent (thick and Bronx-y), and a new trick: Did you know she can dominate a scene with her back turned to the camera? Just watch Sister Aloysius walking up a church aisle during Mass, silencing unruly teens with a graceful, dismissive twist of the hand — or by something less gentle.

"Doubt," written and directed by Shanley from his award-winning play, is a story about shades of gray; a morality tale that wickedly never tells us whose morality it's denouncing — the accused or the accuser?

It's set in 1964, a time when changes were shaking the Catholic Church like those storms blowing outside the windows. Sister Aloysius suspects, based on no decisive proof, that Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is abusing an eighth-grade boy, the school's only black student. (The child, played by Joseph Foster, is never seen in the movie alone with the priest; in the play, no children appear.) She discusses her suspicions with Sister James (Amy Adams), a young and sunnily innocent nun who is concerned but frightened by the idea.

Various confrontations play out, including an electric one with the boy's mother (Viola Davis); in the end, nothing is smoothed out for us.

Shanley's adaptation of the play, which I've read but not seen, isn't seamless; at times you can see the opening-out scheming all too obviously. (Which is to say, the characters walk around a lot.) He stretches out scenes, adds auxiliary characters, cues the howling wind and makes a few vague points about the Catholic hierarchy of men and women. The priests enjoy jovial roast-beef dinners with alcohol, cigarettes and secular music; the nuns have silence and milk. Did he notice, though, that with this cast, none of it was necessary?

When you have Streep, Hoffman, Adams, Davis and Roger Deakins' autumn-crisp cinematography, you don't need any extra fuss. "Doubt," which on the page burns with stark simplicity, has gotten a little cluttered in the translation. But if you want to see remarkable screen acting, ignore the howling wind and watch these faces.

Adams, in the quietest role, shines with sweetness; she's the film's still center. Davis ("Antwone Fisher"), with just one scene, is utterly haunting. Mrs. Miller, looking terribly frightened and yet resolute, reads the situation far differently than Sister Aloysius and responds in an unexpected way. It's a searing, upsetting scene that hits the movie like a thunderbolt — the kind created by two powerhouses colliding.

Hoffman, as the unctuous yet charming priest, gives an equally forceful performance that leaves us wondering to the end: Father Flynn has many unlikable qualities — he's smug, condescending, domineering — but is he an abuser?

And Streep, wrapped in a voluminous habit and a Sisters of Charity bonnet, presents a woman of bedrock conviction (she believes comfortably that "Frosty the Snowman" should be "banned from the airwaves"), wit and fervor. She rolls her eyes at the students' inept carol singing, deplores those who take the easy way out and never entertains doubt — until a devastating late scene. You feel you know this nun and are drawn to her, despite her prickliness; Streep lets us see hints of a different woman, carefully buried.

"Where's your compassion?" thunders Father Flynn, in one of their batten-down-the-hatches confrontations. Unflinching, she shoots back, "Nowhere you can get at it."

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725

or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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