Dir. John Patrick Shanley
(PG-13) ★ ★ ★ ½

John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt, based on his Tony and Pulitzer Prize winning play, develops powerful subtext without having to call attention to it. There are hidden truths under the surface of what the characters say and do. We can see the shadows lurking in the nuances of the screenplay and in the performances of the fine ensemble. Father Brendan Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) doesn’t seem innocent; he is too cagey and indirect in his denials of wrongdoing. Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep) is certain that he is a child molester, and she is certain because she saw him grab a boy by the wrist. Such slight evidence for such a serious charge — for her as well, there is more than meets the eye.

Shanley’s provocative screenplay doesn’t provide clear answers. It’s all about the questions. In 1964 at St. Nicholas Parish in the Bronx, NY, Sister Aloysius is principal and leads her school with an iron fist. “That’s how it works,” she explains to her subordinate, Sister James (Amy Adams), whom she enlists in her campaign to expose Father Flynn. He is her superior and hopes to soften the church’s image. Aloysius disapproves of his brand of change and asks Sister James to keep her eyes open for signs of misconduct.

Shanley’s camera takes a point of view sympathetic with Sister James, observing with a keen eye but lacking the details to understand it all. This is especially effective with the pivotal student characters. The screenplay focuses on one: Donald Miller (Joseph Foster II), the first black student at the recently desegregated school, in whom Flynn takes special interest. But the camera catches glimpses of two others: Jimmy Hurley (Lloyd Clay Brown) and William London (Michael Roukis) — a barely perceptible grin, a look more knowing or troubled than it should be. We suspect that there are more secrets in the faces of these boys, but we are left to wonder.

I have described pieces of the puzzle. No matter how we put them together, we find there are always pieces missing. Aloysius responds by taking steps away from God in acts of cynicism and mistrust — in His service, she says, but distance from God is distance just the same, and we see the toll it takes. James does not know how to respond, to be trustful or embrace the darkness of suspicion, and is caught in the torrent. Father Flynn knows the truth one way or another, but he too is lost in a crisis of the soul. Doubt can unite us at times of public upheaval, Flynn says in a sermon that opens the film. But how terrible is the isolation for characters such as these, who endure their doubt alone.

The film’s success hinges on what Shanley chooses to reveal and not to reveal to the audience. This makes for a tantalizing mystery, but more importantly forces us to share the characters’ uncertainty. As a director, he opts for visual simplicity, his only noticeable flourish being a tilt in the camera to convey imbalance, a lack of order. Otherwise, the focus remains on his screenplay, and he leaves his actors room to plumb depths that go beyond the words on the page; Streep and Hoffman, in their bitter confrontation scenes, evoke internal turmoil the source of which we can only imagine, but which reverberates through the screen.

There is a pivotal scene involving Donald’s mother that comes down to a decision about what knowledge to accept and what knowledge to ignore, for the sake of survival. She is played by the great character actress Viola Davis, who is long overdue the attention she is now receiving. She was a highlight of the 2002 remake of Solaris and had a single devastating scene in World Trade Center that stood head and shoulders above the rest of the film. I was fortunate enough to see her Tony Award-winning performance in August Wilson’s King Hedley II, where she summoned volcanic emotions. She’s a contender for an Oscar nomination for this role. Better late than never.