The best thing to be said about Doubt is it IS a believable film. As much as I enjoyed Proof (and specifically Gwyneth Paltrow's performace in it), that was a movie that was very clearly adapted from a play. The acting was larger than the medium of film should normally contain, and the script made no attempt to tone down the dialog for an audience not sitting in the nosebleed section. Doubt, on the other hand, feels like a film. Yes, the acting is bombastic, and the script is monologue heavy, but Shanley managed to fit his script into a setting that could contain it and give it a cinematic quality.
Meryl Streep, admittedly bringing to mind a stern Mother Goose in certain scenes, plays the stern Sister Aloysius with skill and relish, injecting some wry humor into an otherwise stony woman. She gets to exercise her flair for accents once again, but doesn't overdo it by overstressing it. Better to just committ to the humanity of the character and let the vocal specifics follow. As an actress, she almost always raises the bar high, and doesn't disappoint in this film.
The other actors are more than up to the challenge. It is difficult, in this day and age, for an audience not to automatically assume the guilt of a priest, so it is to the credit of both the script and the performance of Philip Seymour Hoffman that the film manages to mantain a level of the titular doubt while still hinting at a level of creepy intensity simmering below the surface. Viola Davis, in her one scene, stands toe to toe with Meryl Streep, more than justifying the buzz that has followed her since the film was announced. I GUESS I can understand why Amy Adams is being highlighted as the weakest link, but I personally found the way she managed to underline her usual cheerful mousiness with a level of melancholy to be fairly impressive.
AND THANK GOD AMY ADAMS GOT THE ROLE OVER RUMORED NATALIE PORTMAN! As much as I've liked her in other things, the last thing this film needed was a quirky, vegan version of Sister James to twitch and empower herself all over the place. Sister James requires an actress willing to embrace an inner meekness, willing to stand in the shadow of her co stars and say more with her silence than any grand scene.
The main problem with Doubt, then, is the direction. Specifically, there is far far too much of it.
You can tell John Patrick Shanley's been dying to get behind a camera and make a movie ever since 1995's Joe Versus the Volcano. And make a movie he certainly did, using just about every camera trick and symbolic angle placement he thought up in his 13 year break. He tilts the camera at strange angles, shoots characters from above and below, and pans past numerous lines of hymn-singing children.
I'm not sure Shanley had a reason for a lot of these decisions other than his desire to 'get creative.' The problem? Creativity only really works when it's not detracting attention from the central story and characters. It's hard to pay attention to Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams sharing a dramatic moment when you randomly cut to shots peering up from the ground an up into their nostrils. It just is.
Doubt is not a bad movie, certainly, but one that could have benefited from a fresh set of eyes.