Film people like to hate on adaptations of plays. After all, plays have lots of dialogue, few characters, and little action. Who wants to watch a couple of people sit around a room and talk? Well, plenty of great films that do just that, from Sidney Lumet's 12 Angry Men to Richard Linklater's Tape. More recently, Ron Howard very successfully adapted Frost/Nixon to the screen. With his understanding of the way film works, Howard made the film barely feel like it once was a play. But John Patrick Shanley - playwright, adaptor, and director of the film version of Doubt - is no Ron Howard.
In Doubt, Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep), an old-fashioned nun running a Bronx Catholic School in 1964, suspects Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) of molesting the school's first black student, Donald. As each struggles to convince young naive nun Sister James (Amy Adams) of their side, their battle questions who will last at the school and whether certainty is possible. With only four original characters, Doubt is a tough play to bring to film. But Shanley's attempts to spice it up don't help. First there's his distracting shot choices. He uses many canted angles to show doubt in the curved hallways. But the symbolism is too blatant to be effective. He also cuts a lot, often on every line, which seriously hurts the flow. Then there's the way Aloysius is always busy when she speaks. In one scene, she seems to be digging through a woodshed. It's common knowledge to give actors something to do in a scene, but Shanley takes it about ten steps too far.
The movie also suffers from pacing issues. Until the final half hour, the movie moves at a snail's pace with long pauses between lines for no reason. I almost fell asleep in the middle. Part of the problem is Shanley's decision to include characters not in the play, like the children and the other nuns. As they are given little to do, we have to repeatedly watch them in montage. Howard Shore's score doesn't help to set the tone, alternating erratically between horror and melodrama. If Shanley and Shore don't know what kind of movie they're making, then we certainly don't.
As much as Shanley may bungle his own adaptation, Doubt is worth seeing for the cast. The strangest performance comes from Streep, whose Aloysius has a heavy Bronx accent and stalks around like a spider from Lord of the Rings. This can be funny when she's terrorizing the kids, but mostly her performance seems campy. Adams may follow the text by playing a variation on her Enchanted character, but she still feels like a cartoon. Hoffman, great as always, subtly creates ambivalence in his character so the audience can feel the doubt. But the real stand-out is Viola Davis as Donald's mother. She only has one major scene, but she knocks it out of the park. Her pain and intensity is entirely untheatrical, but you hang on her every word. Her scene brings the movie out of its lull and kickstarts it towards the climax.
Starting with Davis' scene, Shanley finally realizes what Ron Howard knew was the trick to a successful adaptation: trust the actors. By the time Hoffman and Streep meet for their final confrontation, all the overdirecting is gone. Streep is no longer digging through woodsheds and the camera is no longer showing off. Instead, it's a simple scene of two people talking that feels as tense as any action scene. The material and the actors are strong enough to fully hold our attention without any directorial interference. The movie may not work as a whole, but a Hoffman/Streep battle is well worth paying to see.