By STEVE PERSALL
Times Film Critic
The pleasure of watching Oscar winners Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman wrestle for control of scenery is the lone reason to see Doubt.
That is dream casting in any medium, but John Patrick Shanley — directing and adapting his Pulitzer Prize-winning play — is trapped in the proscenium arch. No amount of symbolic thunderstorms and strolling chats in a courtyard can disguise the film's stage-bound roots and divisions between acts. This is a filmed play, not a movie.
Streep and Hoffman in the flesh, spinning moral dilemmas about the Catholic church, would be electrifying theater. On screen, they're projecting to rafters that aren't there, forgetting that less is more under the magnifying power of the projector. Doubt is a fine homework assignment for acting students and a chore for anyone else.
Streep plays the near-comically stern Sister Aloysius, who may as well be named Sister Ratched. She's headmaster at a private parochial school, prowling classrooms for signs of dirty fingernails and nod-offs during prayer. Hoffman is jovial, devoted Father Brendan, whose popularity — and Sister Aloysius' jealousy of it — is the elephant in the chapel that isn't directly addressed.
Instead, Shanley skips directly to how the prying nun can sink the priest. A casual, curious observance by a novice, Sister James (a lifeless Amy Adams), leads to suspicion that Father Brendan has molested a student. There are no witnesses but, in Sister Aloysius' mind, no doubt that it happened.
And there is where Doubt remains until Streep's anguished closing line, marking the point where provocative thought begins. The movie is an austere setup for an ethics class assignment: How could this situation have been handled differently and what do you think happens next? Without time for post-show discussion over espresso, Doubt quickly drifts from memory.
The thing that lingers is the thrill of seeing Streep and Hoffman immersed in their roles, two models of thespian precision. Each tic and line delivery is carefully calibrated for maximum effect; silent expressions say as much about the nun's and priest's personalities as their monologues. As eavesdroppers, we wish for more meat on the bare bones of Shanley's secular slant.
Doubt debuted on Broadway after pedophilic scandals rocked the Catholic church, offenses that obviously irked the playwright. Shanley's play is set in 1964, distancing Father Brendan from modern scandal but digging another dramatic hole. Nobody spoke of such lurid affairs in 1964, so everyone in Doubt tap dances around the subject; even the boy's mother (Viola Davis, who needs a tissue) cryptically suggests her son is "that way."
Without resolution or details to inspire suppositions, Doubt is a somber journey down a dead-end street with two great actors, more penance than cinematic pleasure.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at blogs.tampabay.com/movies.