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‘Doubt’ excels on sheer star power

It is 1964 in the Bronx, and in the parish of St. Nicholas the good nuns and priests are busy teaching history and giving homilies.

Yet the one thing we do not hear them lecture on is the Seven Deadly Sins. Perhaps it is because they themselves are guilty of so many of them.

Sister Aloysius, the quick-to-anger principal of the school, is certainly full of wrath. And chubby Father Flynn, delighting in his dinners of rare roast beef and Seagram’s, is no stranger to gluttony.

But there are hints of other sins at St. Nicholas, too. And absolution will not come easily.

When we first saw this situation unfold in “Doubt,” it was onstage, and the cast was sharply limited: Sister Aloysius, Father Flynn, a young nun and the mother of a (possibly) molested boy. It was the question of that molestation that was the play’s point – not only what the truth was, but whether you could ever truly know it.

It’s an intellectual, philosophical approach to a brutally painful subject, yet playwright John Patrick Shanley never lost sight of the characters’ humanity (or the need for an occasional touch of humor).

Shanley has held on to this in his movie adaptation, while drastically opening the play up. Fresh characters are added, incidents interpolated, and entirely new sequences brought in. And yet the few personalities who were at the center of this Pulitzer Prize winner remain there.

Chief among them are Meryl Streep, as the formidable “dragon” who runs her parochial school like a prison, and Philip Seymour Hoffman as the cheerful priest who preaches unconditional love. On paper, they are constructs: symbols of the old church and the new, penance and forgiveness. On the screen, they are blazingly alive.

That’s due to the actors, of course, two of our finest. Hoffman gets the showier part, perhaps – building up, over the course of the film, to an explosion of crimson-faced anger. But the inflexible Streep is every bit his equal – holding her rosary as tightly as a club, peering through her glasses as if she had finally trapped sin under a microscope.

There are other good actors here – including Amy Adams as the desperately sweet Sr. James, and Viola Davis as the boy’s mother. But Hoffman and Streep are breathtaking as they go to battle, each convinced that the other is an unspeakable monster.

Crammed with great performances and authentic period detail (you can almost smell the cafeteria food and the mimeograph ink), it’s a fine adaptation of a provocative play. Shanley should feel proud of himself.

But not too proud – after all, that’s a deadly sin, too.

For times and locations, see page 6.

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