As I was watching the film, and more or less enjoying it, I wondered to myself, why did the play feel so glib? And then the last scenes came, and I remembered and re-experienced it.
Shanley sets up a potential Did he or didn't he? scenario, and then utterly fails to write the scenes that clinch it. Fr. Flynn crumbles far too easily, on far too lilttle evidence, for it to be credible that he's innocent. Streep's character then expressing her "doubt" a scene later is trying to buy ambiguity on the cheap. A better writer would have found a way to write that final confrontation -- or spread it out over a couple of scenes -- so that we weren't sure of Flynn's culpability but we would have seen that Sr. Aloysius had so much circumstantial evidence on him that it would have been futile for him to fight. All this work still wouldn't have made it the masterpiece over-generous theatre critics claimed to see, but it would have made it a fuller play and, now, movie.
As far as how it's made: apart from the hokey horror-film touches (swirling leaves, indeed), it had a nice feel that certainly brought back many elements of my grade school days.
Streep worked for me, even if she took it into heightened-archetype territory. As younger folk around me hooted and laughed, I felt like screaming to them, You don't understand; there WERE nuns like that, and we let them terrorize us. Not career-capping Oscar win territory, but solid.
I didn't think Hoffman carried the weight of his Happiness persona, as I'd feared. He seemed very regular-guy, get along with the kids charming. And I don't see how anyone can suggest him for supporting with a straight face.
Years ago, a friend of mine years ago made me aghast by saying he liked On Golden Pond. He quickly added, But I'd seen it on stage, and you have no idea how much broader the performances were. In that vein, I'd like to praise Amy Adams. I thought of the role of Sr. James as thankless, chiefly because the actress I saw do it on stage (name expunged from memory) played her as an insufferable ninny -- apparently the only way she could think to suggest innocence. Amy Adams, of course, exudes innocence from every pore, leaving her free to play it straight. I think she's wonderful in the part. Viola Davis, as widely expected, takes her bravura scene and rides it home; I can certainly understand all the praise for her. But Adams has probably five times as much screen time, and is a far more central character. I'm thinking about the 1977 Oscars, when the race appeared to be between Alec Guinness and Maximillian Schell's dynamic cameo in Julia -- and instead Jason Robards surprised most by winning the trophy. I'm not quite ready to bet on Adams...but if she ends up an unlikely victor, I want to be down as the first to suggest the possibility.