Philip Seymour Hoffman portrays the priest who may or may not be a child molester it is never made absolutely clear either way. Hoffman is careful to portray Father Flynn as just an average priest early on in the film. There is an innate friendliness in his performance that is fitting of his priest who wants to make the church come off that way to outsiders as well as the parents of the children in the school. In addition to this in his sermon scenes Hoffman has a confidence as well an understated passion that is a perfect fit for his priest.
Hoffman early though leaves his character open to interpretation just enough without ever seeming like an obvious problem in anyway. There does always seem to be something else about Father Flynn in Hoffman's portrayal that never leaves him as a black or white figure but a man of grey. Hoffman carefully conveys this in just his early moments such as when he is talking to the boys about dating or even just teaching them about basketball. Hoffman finds just the right approach here because he technically does not seem to say anything precisely, but yet he still conveys the idea that there is something more to Father Flynn.
Philip Seymour Hoffman's performance greatest challenge comes when he may or may not have committed a crime. Hoffman neither confirms or denies his crime at any moment in his performance. This is something very difficult to be able to do without falling one way the other, the best portrayal of this is obviously Jeremy Irons in Reversal of Fortune, Hoffman here is not quite on Irons level yet his portrayal of Flynn's possible guilt is well handled. Hoffman does carefully suggests guilt in a way but not necessarily guilt in terms of what he is being accused of, but possibly guilt because of some feeling for the crime not because he actually did it. Hoffman leaves Flynn properly open to interpretation.
Many of Hoffman's pivotal scenes though come in his confrontational moments with Meryl Streep's Sister Aloysius. These scenes are really are as much of their character's conflict as the actors conflict over their styles in the scene. Meryl Streep here has the accent and the greater degree of theatrics which makes sense for her character who always wants her presence to be known as well as wants things done her way, Hoffman on the other hand downplays his half of the conflict. Hoffman makes Flynn almost trying to avoid the conflict with the sister, and constantly trying just to calm the situation more than outright attack the sister back on her terms.
It is a very effective approach that works well in contrast to Streep's approach that creates an interesting dynamic between the two. Hoffman with ease shows the great emotional range that Father Flynn goes through in just a single scene. From his early moments of trying to be just dismissive, to soon becoming more frustrated and angry while showing an underlying guilt of some sort at the same time. Hoffman is extremely effective because he moves through this emotions with absolute realism. There is no disconnect in his performance but rather every emotion is all part of Father Flynn's troubled reaction to the accusations made against him.
Hoffman is able to handle all of the difficulties of the role in strive never falling into any sort of obvious trap one way or another in terms of his character. He completely fulfills the challenges of the role and achieves precisely what he needs to with the role of Father Flynn. If I were to complain about the performance, and really I do not need to as he he gives a very strong performance, is I could not help feeling it could have perhaps been even better of one than it already is. It is not to say there is a single problem with his performance, there really isn't, only could not help but feel with such a character it could have been an absolutely stunning performance instead of just a very good one. I can't even identify really what exactly stops him from going further I really can't, but in the end I can't shake the feeling that perhaps he could have. Nevertheless this is a fine performance from Hoffman and should be recognized as such.