RATING |

I'll not waste space extolling the merits of Meryl Streep - she can do anything, except sing "The Winner Takes It All" - without making your head hurt.

And while there are bigger stars than Phillip Seymour Hoffman, among actors, there are few better - I've watched "Charlie Wilson's War" 20 times now, just to hear him say that the U.S. covert war in Afghanistan is being conducted by "me and three other guys."

Bottom line, if you're looking for two actors to slowly peel away all the layers of meaning from a delicately written line, you won't do better than these two.

Watching them go head to head in "Doubt" is a pleasure - a lot more fun than it should be given the potentially creepy nature of the material (directed by John Patrick Shanley, adapting his hit Broadway play).

"Doubt" is set in the 1960s at a Catholic school where the dictatorial Sister Aloysius (Streep) has begun to suspect that the popular, personable Father Flynn (Hoffman) is molesting one of the boys.

Shanley isn't out to make "Doubt" an expose. The title was chosen for a reason, so don't expect to leave the theater with a firm handle on the possible sins of Father Flynn.

Shanley raises the issue of pedophilia precisely because it provokes a visceral response and invites quick and inflexible judgment. His vehicle for this instinct for condemnation is Sister Aloysius. When a young teacher (Amy Adams) comes to her with circumstantial evidence of questionable behavior, the older woman concludes that Father is guilty, and works to unseat him.

She's never liked him much, anyway - she represents a rigid old guard, and loves the fact that the children fear her. She disapproves of Father Flynn's eagerness to be liked - to her a sign of weakness, or something worse.

Shanley cleverly teases the audience's impulse to choose sides. Sister Aloysius is a knuckle-rapping pre-Vatican II battle ax, but she'd be a great righteous avenger (particularly in the absence of scandal-averse church leadership). Father Flynn is the kind, compassionate face of a new church, but there are no checks or balances to his power, and limits to his sense of entitlement.

The actors get that Shanley is after ambiguity, and make piles of ambiguous hay. Hoffman is frightfully good at playing a kind, intelligent man with something queasy at his core (but what?). And he's great with some of the loaded language Shanley saves for his big verbal showdown with Sister Aloysius.

Streep, as usual, is a treat - almost too entertaining. Of late, she's found a way to make imperious female authority figures likable and funny ("The Devil Wears Prada"). She's turned into America's Judi Dench.

You can feel her edging toward that with Sister Aloysius (although I don't know what Prada would make of the black bonnet she wears). Not to worry. She sobers up for her big scene with Hoffman, and for an electric sequence with Viola Davis as the mother of a troubled boy.

It's hard to tell what to make of the ending, in which Shanley decides the big pedophilia bomb he's strapped to "Doubt" doesn't need to be detonated or defused.

Is it satisfying? I have my doubts. But none about the work that Hoffman and Streep do here. *

Produced by Scott Rud*n, Mark Roybal, wr*tten and d*rected by John Patr*ck Shanley, mus*c by Howard Shore, d*str*buted by M*ramax F*lms.