The most frightful creature inspiring the most intense fear is already here, and she's a nun. Her name is Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Meryl Streep), and she looms in the movie “Doubt” over St. Nicholas Middle School in the Bronx during the mid-1960s with a countenance more intimidating than her name and an Irish accent that could shuck corn. Hang on to your seat the first time she shouts out “Boy!” to an offending youngster.
Sister Aloysius, who looks like she's been at the school since the Reformation, is suspicious of her superior, Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a friendly, conscientious younger priest who has taken the school's only black student (Joseph Foster II) under his wing. Sister James (Amy Adams), a good-natured eighth-grade teacher, has witnessed circumstantial evidence that leads the two nuns to suspect the relationship has gone too far, and they confront Father Flynn in one of the film's many displays of acting prowess.
Hoffman and Adams are sympathetic in their roles and Streep is an unholy terror as the heavy. She and Hoffman give a bombastic, show-stopping confrontation at the film's climax, which follows a searing encounter between the nun and the boy's mother, played in an excellent turn by character actor Viola Davis. The problem is that all the enjoyable fireworks, from the convincing characterizations to the Johnson-era setting, are in service to trick the audience.
AÿThe movie suggests Sister Aloysius doesn't like Father Flynn anyway; he champions joy and change within the strict school and the sister cannot even abide ballpoint pens or singing “Frosty the Snowman.” Director John Patrick Shanley, a stage and screen veteran who adapted the film from his own play, is frequently overbearing with his camera, but does construct a few telling moments, especially a dinner sequence that summarizes the gulf between Father Flynn's jovial repasts and Sister Aloysius' mute, austere suppers.
But “Doubt” goes overboard encouraging disgust for one of these two and admiration for the other, and it's all too easy to see why. The appeal of Shanley's story may be its characterizations, getting to know types of people both honorable and loathsome in a time and place strange to many of us. But he wasn't satisfied and goes after a big surprise that turns out to be less shocking than it is superficial and predictable. This type of thing seems especially small in the expansive spaces of a movie. Based on its timing, “Doubt” seems intended to be an Oscar contender. The fine performances and theatrical pedigree might make it a winner, but its conclusions are as trivial as anything that will be in theaters come award time. (PG-13) 104 min. HHHIIS