It is easy to see what the makers of Doubt are trying to do, and I do not doubt [sic] for a second that this worked brilliantly in the stage version, because the dramatic potency and potential in here is incontestable. However, in transferring his play to the big screen, John Patrick Shanley clearly demonstrates that he should have left the directorial responsibility to someone else. Much of the thematic subtlety is lost, and not enough visual realism is gained.
Without having seen the Tony winning play, I will claim that most every problem with Doubt can be traced back to the direction. Shanley's script has so much potential, and the dialogue is crisp and intricate, despite still retaining clear theatrical roots. The biggest problem with the direction is that the film remains too one-noted for a film. The thematic "doubt", whether or not Father Flynn could be an active pedophile, surfaces right away and we never really follow any other plot line after that. As in a play, the characters in doubt are surfacing in one-on-one situations, often seemingly without context. They feel isolated in more ways than their conventional surroundings, and this removes much of the sine qua non from the story.
Another problem is the lack of backdrop - both for Sister James' suspicion and for Sister Aloysius' sudden actions. It's almost as if it were predestinated (like in a script). I find it strange that a young woman who is so naïve in her perception of the world as Sister James is presented, should deduct possibilities of sexual abuse from such meagre signals. And the setting of 1964 doesn't help in this respect. Most other accounts of sexual abuse in the clergy from this period tell of the opposite situation: the surroundings failing to take notice of signals - signals which in many cases were far more tangible than here. If you consider a film like the 2006 documentary Deliver Us From Evil (which deals with exactly the same issues in approximately the same period), the interactions and confrontations in Doubt come off as contrived and improbable.
There are nevertheless great drama in Doubt, and the film is constantly interesting, despite its bumpy handling of the material. First and foremost, however, this is the performers' show. With a tad better direction, they would all deserve the accolades they are getting. I am not saying that their Academy Award nominations are undeserved, but I still feel that there are some subtle details missing from the performances of all the three leads. With that said, they do create sparks in certain scenes, and Philip Seymour Hoffman is the one coming closest to the real thing. The actions and sentiments of his Father Flynn are complex and understandable. His grief is real and perceptible. Meryl Streep is great in the lighter early scenes, but as previously suggested, her character seems over the top. She's simply too extreme. They same can be said for Amy Adams who looks and acts charmingly, but whose naivety doesn't match her intelligence.
The power of the conclusive scene in Doubt only emphasises the disappointment in the realization of this work. If one were to rate a film from potential, then Doubt has what it takes - both dramatically and allegorically. This is a film with hints of greatness. Unfortunately, without good craftsmanship, these hints only leave a lot to be desired.