I don't like to say it - for it's a cliché and an insult to the human capacity to create art - but it's probably true that John Patrick Shanley's play Doubt shouldn't have ever been turned into a movie - despite winning every award you could name and just as many that you couldn't, it's really more of a near-masterpiece, and most of what makes it work is people talking about philosophy and theoretical frames. There have been good and great films like that, but I can't name a single one of them made in America. At any rate, I know this much is a fact: Doubt should absolutely never, ever have been turned into a movie by John Patrick Shanley.

It's next to impossible to figure out how he even got the job, despite being one of the most beloved American dramatists now working. His only other film directorial credit, after all, is the 18-year-old flop Joe Versus the Volcano, a movie that has recently enjoyed some rehabilitation at the hands of a small group of us who enjoy its surrealist mangling of romantic comedy tropes. But a cult following is hardly enough for Miramax to hand off their primary Oscar hopeful to an otherwise unproven filmmaker. It's a gamble that failed: Shanley's screenplay for Doubt is strong in most of the ways it needs to be, yet his work behind the camera is a wreck, and only the writing and a couple of the performances are enough to leave the film stranded just barely on the right side of watchable.

Maybe a better director wouldn't have been able to make this mess of words and abstract thoughts vitally cinematic, but I don't imagine it could have turned out a whole lot worse. In his attempts to open up the film beyond its stagey roots, Shanley has pulled out a seemingly endless parade of trite ideas (the dramatic confrontation takes place during a thunderstorm, to name just the clumsiest example) and horribly ill-chosen camera angles. Have you ever wondered what the inside of Oscar nominee Amy Adams's nose looks like? You need to see Doubt. As a bonus, you'll also get to see more inexplicable Dutch angles than you'll know what to do with, and I find myself once again compelled to quote Roger Ebert's fantastic Battlefield Earth pan: "The director, Roger Christian, has learned from better films that directors sometimes tilt their cameras, but he has not learned why." The rub is that Battlefield Earth was shot by a negligible journeyman named Giles Nuttgens, whereas Doubt was shot by the very talented Roger Deakins, who has every reason on Earth to know better than letting a director talk him into setting the camera 45 degrees on its side for absolutely no reason.

Anyway, the film has a good script at least, like I said, and this is how it goes: at St. Nicholas, the Catholic school in a Bronx parish in 1964, there is a new priest named Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman), whose commitment to the Church's new policy of humanising its fusty old rituals runs aground of the school's principal, the imperious Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Meryl Streep), a thundering nun-harpy of the old guard. She despises all of Flynn's attempts to open up St. Nicholas and make things friendlier, she despises him personally, and this leaves her convinced from highly circumstantial evidence presented by the wide-eyed and hopelessly innocent Sister James (Amy Adams) that Flynn has engaged in sexual acts with the school's single African-American student, Donald Miller (Joseph Foster II). With a title like, Doubt, of course, you'd hardly expect things to be as clear cut as all that, and Sister James - that is to say, the audience - needs a lot more convincing that Flynn has been up to anything more sinister than helping out an ostracised young fellow with an obviously shitty home life.

Besides Shanley's patently insane behind-the-camera antics, there is one thing that comes perilously close to ruining Doubt: Hoffman is absolutely, horrifyingly miscast. For the story to work, we need to be completely unconvinced right up to the final ambiguous moments of the screenplay, whether Father Flynn has done anything at all. Bless PSH for all the beautiful things he has done for the art of cinematic acting in the last ten years, but do you have any problem, for even one second, imagining him as a pedophile? I don't either, and it leaves the movie with a sucking vacuum where it's drama is supposed to be. On the one hand, we have Streep at her most vicious and melodramatically over-the-top playing a sort of Attilla the Nun, and on the other, we have Hoffman playing a guy who's probably a child rapist. Yeah, I mean, look at him. No way did he not touch that boy, right?

It's a real shame that this should be the case, because the screenplay to Doubt (which looks an awful lot like the original play text of Doubt, but with superfluous characters and locations) is full of intelligent grace notes that suggest that in more capable hands, with better choices, it could have been exactly the study of doubt vs. certainty that we've been promised. It's a model of circumspect writing - the dogma-shattering Vatican II council of 1962-'65 is never mentioned, though it hangs heavily over every inch of the drama; and the word "pedophile" isn't heard, nor anything remotely like a synonym, just for a start - which however drenched in symbolism still has plenty of compelling ideas buzzing around for those with the bravery to seek them out.

It also boasts a clutch of good performances: Hoffman does what he can despite being rendered impotent from the moment of his casting, Adams does that whole "deer in the headlights innocence" that she's perfected, but which still works perfectly well for the script at hand, and Viola Davis, present in one lengthy scene as Donald Miller's mother, stands out with a typical Oscar clip moment of crying - but such wet, mucous-heavy crying it is! For a tiny, bog-standard role, it's unexpectedly naked and honest.

And Meryl Streep, the woman who can't do wrong. Her take on Sister Aloysius is beamed-in from some far distant planet compared the rest of the cast, but I defy any human being to keep their eyes off of her in any scene she doesn't share with Davis. The Noo Yawk sistuh is the latest addition to Streep's accent catalogue, and as it sometimes was with Sophie Zawistowski, Karen Blixen and Francesca Johnson, there are moments where the accent seems to be the performance. But largely, Streep appears to be having fun playing the Most Monstrous Nun in the Whole Wide World, and while I don't imagine that people who hate camp will get much joy from the performance, I don't really care about the needs of people who hate camp.

All the little good bits are enough push Doubt - barely - into the "good" category. But that is the very nicest thing I can think of to say. At heart, it doesn't really work as a story, and it absolutely doesn't work, formally, as cinema. Those are two pretty gigantic strikes against a presumptive award-winner. Frankly, I can't imagine anyone ever being in a position where Doubt was the very best film they had the opportunity to see.