Meryl Streep still takes on a variety of different roles: Witness her flighty country singer in A Prairie Home Companion, or the manic matriarch of Mamma Mia! She’s recently shown a particular weakness for gorgons, however, and John Patrick Shanley’s screen version of his 2005 Tony-winning play allows the actor to inhabit a doozy of a character. Streep’s Sister Aloysius is indisputably the moral authority of the Bronx’s St. Nicholas, a towering presence prone to sucker-smacking students and hovering like a black-bonneted bird of prey. So when a fellow nun (Adams) suggests that they may have a predator in their midst, the sister starts sharpening her talons. It seems that Father Flynn (Hoffman) may or may not be paying undue attention to a young boy. According to Aloysius: This. Will. Not. Do.
Shanley’s decision to minimize the cinematic touches—an exterior scene here, a Dutch angle shot there—surprisingly benefits the film. Doubt works best when the performers are simply allowed to spar: A single scene between Streep and Viola Davis, who steals the show, is a series of gentle but devastating jabs, while the final confrontation between Aloysius and Flynn is akin to watching Ali take on Frazier. These heavyweights occasionally overstep in calling forth sound and fury (you sometimes wonder if they're auditioning for Doubt's theatrical production.) But credit Streep for keeping the fires raging; the fact that her performance stops the movie from becoming another trapped-in-amber adaptation is beyond a shadow of a you-know-what.