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La Streep vs. the C-Hoff.
The ultimate smackdown this movie season doesn't occur in Mickey Rourke's upcoming "The Wrestler," but in "Doubt," with two of America's powerhouse actors facing off in a struggle of steel wills, both certain that God is on their side.
As Sister Aloysius, principal of a Catholic school in the Bronx in 1964, Meryl Streep fears that a priest played by Philip Seymour Hoffman is sexually abusing the school's lone black student. She passive-aggressively draws Sister James (Amy Adams) into her plan to oust Father Flynn, who with his newfangled ideas also happens to be at cross-purposes with the sister's tradition-bound preferences.
It might be hard to imagine how director John Patrick Shanley could make a compelling film of his talky, Tony-winning play, but for the most part it works, aided by some obvious but effective camera work and sinister leaf swirling.
Sister Aloysius moves in a quietly formidable way, at the ready to slap a scarlet letter on the nearest forehead. She is shot from so many ominously low angles that the viewer is made to feel the naughty one. As she tussles with her black Sisters of Charity dress in the courtyard wind, Streep seems to be trying to reel in her performance from the edge of camp, as well. An "SNL" spoof simply must be in the offing.
Hoffman is the picture of expansive, do-gooder entitlement, an All-American man of the cloth but for his creepy long fingernails. The strict gender hierarchy of the church and the era are on parade throughout. As the priests chortle over rare beef and red wine at dinner, the scene cuts to the sisters primly, mutely forking up their food. As Father Flynn blithely perches himself in Sister Aloysius' chair for a meeting in her office, a smile just shy of smug tossing out the first grenade, she knows she's in for the battle of her life, and up to the challenge.
It's too bad so much has already been made of Viola Davis' brief, gut-twisting turn as the mother of the boy in question, fully deserving of its best-supporting Oscar buzz. It's best experienced by surprise. Is she an amoral opportunist for wanting to look the other way for the sake of her son's future, or a 1960s cultural realist? Maybe both, and utterly convincing.
As Sister James, Adams has the toughest job of all -- projecting sincere, optimistic naivete without too much sugar. She's a treat to watch every moment, her huge, bonnet-framed eyes pools of constantly, subtly changing emotion.
While the Streep-Hoffman death match is the film's dramatic high point, its success lies in its defiant refusal to trot out even a slightly satisfying answer to the question: Did he or didn't he? Expect to be swayed on both sides, but not toward easy resolution.
Kristin Tillotson • 612-673-7046