With all due respect, Michael Sheen and Frank Langella aren't exactly names that are going to get butts in seats for Frost/Nixon. But director Ron Howard wisely recruited them for his crisp, concise theatrical adaptation of Peter Morgan's stage drama because they were right for the parts of celebrity journalist David Frost and exiled ex-President Richard Nixon, respectively. They'd originated the roles in London's West End, sharpened their portrayals over hundreds of performances, and established a chemistry that translates beautifully to Howard's film.
When presented with the challenge of adapting his own play, Doubt, for the screen, John Patrick Shanley takes an alternate approach. Gone are Cherry Jones and Brian F. O'Byrne, award-claiming talents who'd shaped Shanley's four-person narrative into a Pulitzer, Tony, and Drama Desk Award winner in 2005. He replaces them here with marquee Hollywood names who have heavy-lifting abilities, and the casting works, though a part of me still wishes Shanley had invited Jones and O'Byrne to usher Doubt to its filmed incarnation. Article continues below
The doubt of Shanley's title lingers among three occupants of a Catholic school in the Bronx. Wet-behind-the-habit Sister James (Amy Adams) approaches the school's stern principal, Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep), when she suspects congenial parish priest Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) of misconduct with Donald Miller (Joseph Foster), the school's first black student. Aloysius begins a behind-the-scenes campaign to topple the smug Flynn, convinced of his guilt even though she lacks any evidence of wrongdoing.
The film's best scenes are also the play's best scenes. Shanley wrote three powerful confrontations in Doubt, and he builds anticipation for them the way a ring announcer dances through the undercard prior to the main event. He needs to master those verbal altercations for Doubt to succeed. And he nails them, thanks to the powerhouse contributions from his ensemble.
Streep and Hoffman will garner much of the film's praise, and both are excellent, but it's impossible to overlook Viola Davis and Adams in the film. The former, who plays Donald's mother, ignites her lone scene -- a lengthy sit with Streep's nosy nun that puts the film's dilemmas into a new context. And Adams quietly acts as the scale that balances Streep and Hoffman's heavyweight performances.
Streep makes more noticeable changes to differentiate (and distance) her portrayal of Aloysius from Jones' stage take. It's calculated and precise (when is it not with Streep?) but ferocious and fragile, as well. She's stubbornly cut from the old-school cloth, and protective of her flock (perhaps to a fault). Hoffman has a more difficult task. In expanding his play for the screen, Shanley creates more speaking parts, and so we witness interactions that didn't exist on stage. Flynn, in particular, is now seen with the young boys from the school, and we can't help but scrutinize the scenes for hints of the man's guilt or innocence.
To his credit, Hoffman masquerades a definitive answer. In fact, after seeing Shanley's Doubt on both stage and screen, I can honestly say I'm unsure whether Flynn is guilty of Aloysius's charges. Which, of course, is Shanley's desired effect.