That austerity emerges partly from Shanley’s no-nonsense telling and partly from the setting: a Catholic school and its sister church in the Bronx in the early 1960s, where fierce Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep, hooded, pale-faced, red-eyed, looking like an evil, hungover sparrow) runs a tight ship in conflict with the warmer demeanour and more liberal attitude of the institution’s priest, the clubbable Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman). When a younger nun, Sister James (Amy Adams) suspects, on the back of little evidence, that the priest is having an inappropriate relationship with the school’s only black pupil, Donald Miller (Joseph Foster), Aloysius is determined to force Flynn from the school. Is Flynn guilty? Is Aloysius as convinced by Flynn’s guilt as she appears? If not, why does she behave as she does?
There are no easy answers, which is refreshing, and Shanley allows little to get in the way of strong performances and a tight line of argument, even if, in his attempt to embrace the ‘cinematic’ he indulges a few too many shots of storms beating at windows and lightbulbs threatening to fail. Empathy is one of the dramatist’s slyest weapons and Shanley uses it wisely, leading us between our two leads, releasing and suppressing information but never spoon-feeding us. We’re allowed to make up our own minds, both about Flynn’s ‘crime’ and the nature of the debate itself.