A tough-as-nails Catholic school principal, Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep) tries to trick a confession out of a progressive priest (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) whom she suspects of being a pedophile in this terse drama, directed by John Patrick Shanley, based on his hit stage play, set in the mid 1960s in the wake of the Kennedy assassination. There's a feeling of dread and claustrophobia in the parochial school air: the kids can't sit still and they quake in terror of being called downstairs to face Sister Aloysius's wrath. Amy Adams is the sweet-natured sister in charge of eighth grade, who first suspects Father Flynn (Hoffman) may have seduced a withdrawn African-American boy in her class. Sister Aloysius becomes convinced of the priest's guilt, but it's hard to be certain if her judgment is obscured by the change he represents or is just the result of her hardened years of experience.
Director of photography Roger Deakins brings a lived-in bleakness to the cold wintry Bronx settings: paint peeling off the rectory walls, bare trees reflected in frosty windows, wrinkled white linen, and old, wizened faces in the gloom of the actual location photography. This all contrasts impressively with the hothouse nature of the performances; when Hoffman and Streep finally go toe-to-toe, you can feel the gods of acting rise to attention. The real scene stealer here however is Viola Davis, shattering as the possibly victimized boy's hard-working mother. She even leaves Streep at a standstill, and that's saying something.