But while Father Flynn is looking to loosen things up in his parish, Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep), principal of St. Nicholas' parochial school, stands firm in her embrace of the strict traditions of a Catholic education. Draped in a black habit, with an almost comic black bonnet strapped tightly to her bespectacled head, she patrols the halls and classrooms with a watchful eye, dispensing a tap here, a whack there, to keep her mostly Irish and Italian American boys and girls in line.
It is a different boy - Donald Miller (Joseph Foster), the school's first black student - who becomes the focus of the conflict between Father Flynn and Sister Aloysius. The priest has befriended the isolated, unsure Donald. But an impressionable young nun (Amy Adams) has seen things between Flynn and the student that have troubled her, and has reported her concerns to Sister Aloysius.
That seed of suspicion is all Streep's character needs: There will be no molestation of children by priests on her watch, even though she has no evidence that such a thing occurred.
Still, she is sure: "A dog that bites is a dog that bites," she tells Flynn in Shanley's big confrontation scene - a scene, in Aloysius' office, shot at absurdly dramatic angles, with the fierce ring of an unanswered phone going off at a nerve-racking clip.
There's more than a little humor at play in Shanley's dark tale - even in the aforementioned meeting - and the writer-director gets Streep, Hoffman and Adams working at the top of their games. Viola Davis, playing Donald's hard-pressed mother, is also riveting in her few scenes - one of which, a walk-and-talk with Streep, speaks volumes about race and class, institutional power, abusive marriages, and even homophobia, all in a few deftly delivered minutes.
But for all its high-caliber performances, its cutting dissection of the roles of men and women within the Catholic hierarchy, and its timely resonance in the wake of the church's sexual abuse scandals, there's something pat and tidy about Doubt. Instead of presenting a mystery about human nature and the intangibles of truth, the film becomes, on some level, a kind of whodunit, or a did-he-do-it? - a mere mystery, in other words, about a crime that may or may not ever have happened.
Doubt *** (Out of four stars)
Directed by John Patrick Shanley, based on his play. With Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Viola Davis and Amy Adams. Distributed by Miramax Films.
Running time: 1 hour, 44 mins.
Parent's guide: PG-13 (adult themes)
Playing at: Ritz at the Bourse and Showcase at the Ritz Center/NJ
Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or firstname.lastname@example.org.