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"Doubt" has formidable talent behind it, but don't let its impressive pedigree throw you. Forget for a moment that it's an adaptation of a Pulitzer- and Tony-winning stage play. Forget that it stars two heavyweight actors in Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman. Forget that it is bathed in the occasionally claustrophobic hues of Oscar-bait mystique.

Strip away all the pretensions and "Doubt" is essentially a parlor mystery. A stern nun at a Catholic school suspects that a priest is having an inappropriate relationship with an altar boy. Is the priest a pedophile or a man of God helping a troubled child? Are the nun's fears founded or has mother superior jumped the gun?

"Doubt" is polished, sharply observed and unwaveringly tasteful. Director John Patrick Shanley, who also wrote the script based on his hit play, nicely expands the work from its four-character origins but still doesn' t exactly shake its staginess. Despite the distraction of some tilted camera angles "? an effect that seems more appropriate for student films than mainstream Hollywood "? "Doubt" doesn't pretend that it isn't essentially a filmed play.

That's OK. The dialogue is piquant, the strongly drawn characters a feast for actors. It is more wickedly entertaining "? and not nearly as weighty "? as it would have you believe.

Shanley has assembled a knockout cast. Hoffman imbues his character with suitable ambiguity, but best of all is Streep. Her Sister Aloysius is a force of nature. It is a big, fat, scenery-chewing performance, and it is impossible to take your eyes off her.

"?Phil Bacharach


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