On paper, John Patrick Shanley did everything right in bringing his Pulitzer Prize-winning play Doubt to film. He adapted the screenplay and directed himself, assembled a cast with 17 Oscar nominations to their collective credit, and brought in the extraordinary cinematographer Roger Deakins. Given the strength of the source material and the pedigree of its cast and crew, Doubt may be the ultimate low-risk, high-reward prestige product, and it would be wrong for me to suggest that Shanley has produced anything less than a gripping piece of work. Despite its many virtues, though, Doubt is also bloodless. Handsome, well played, and oddly forgettable, it never manages to live up to the promise of its big ideas and heady speeches.
Doubt is the sort of movie that often gets described as “an actor’s picture,” partly because almost every scene features some combination of its four principals colluding with, confronting, or lecturing one another, and also because two of its four featured cast members are Meryl Streep, stepping into a role that earned Cherry Jones a Tony, and the recently Oscared Philip Seymour Hoffman. Streep plays the imperious Sister Aloysius Beauvier, the principal of a Catholic grammar school in the Bronx.