Some things to which there really is no downside: Meryl Streep. Philip Seymour Hoffman. Black bonnets. The Dutch tilt. Silence. Philip Seymour Hoffman.
The boy person friend, with reluctant generosity, rented Doubt the other day – mainly to take my mind off the fact that he had also picked up a copy of Dan in Real Life. I never look a gift horse in the mouth, however, and Doubt more than lived up to its early promise. Meryl Streep, as a no-nonsense nun with a funny accent, whups the pants off Philip Seymour Hoffman (he’s in this movie, I meant to mention) – not literally, about the whupping off of his pants, but she does allow herself the grim pleasure of developing suspicions about his sordid goings-on with altar boys in the rectory. Unfettered by any actual evidence, she simply takes her ecclesiastical ranking in one hand, grasps her middle-aged New York chutzpah in the other, and lets rip with a campaign to get Father Frank (Philip Seymour Hoffman) out of her parish.
It’s a simple story told at an unhurried pace, and some of its devices are planted with wide-eyed naivete (such as the housekeeper hunting down an unwelcome mouse: “Takes a cat,” she declares with satisfaction when her mog has finally succeeded at the task, and Streep’s character archly replies, “Yes it does”). But Doubt, make no mistake, is on: tautly threaded, blinkered at all the right moments like the black bonnets that festoon the heads of dozens of unassumingly distinctive nuns, crafted with spare three-act precision – a Witness for those too titchy to remember it, assuming, that is, that they weren’t in the multiplex watching Dan in Real Life and consequently missing it.
In its final act, Doubt emerges as a devastating tryptich as Streep’s Sister Aloysius, her protege and sometime antagonist Sister James (beautifully played by Amy Adams, who’s a darn good thing), and the beleagured Father Frank (Philip Seymour Hoffman) turn cat and mouse, mother and child, saint and sinner, serpent and dove, Eve and madonna, protector and quarry, confessor and comforter. Its stage origins are evident, but Doubt uses the cinematic frame with deft expertise. It’s sometimes simplistic, not a little obvious, but never heavy-handed; subtle and well-finished to a fault.
Also, Philip Seymour Hoffman.