'Doubt' is written and directed by John Patrick Shanley and is based on his Pulitzer Prize-winning play. As with any transition from stage to screen, there is plenty of great dialogue and the four lead actors thrive on such rich material.

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The lead performers were deservedly nominated for Oscars, which in Viola Davis' case was some feat, as she is only on screen for one scene. Streep excels as Sister Aloysius Beauvier, the menacing principal of the local school, and has a good foil in Hoffman, who looks every inch the kindly priest.

Set in an Irish-Italian catholic parish in the Bronx in 1964, the film opens in an era of great social and political change. John F Kennedy's assassination is still raw and the Second Vatican Council is well underway, with its changes beginning to sweep across the Catholic world.

But one woman, Sister Aloysius (Streep), is determined to keep the winds of change from blowing through St Nicholas. When the charismatic new priest Father Flynn (Hoffman) arrives, he challenges that old world order and her plans for the righteous education of the pupils.

His upbeat personality is a world away from the moody, bonnet-wearing Sister Aloysius, who believes in instilling fear to maintain discipline. Fear is one of the main themes, both of the known and the unknown.

In her attempt to keep control, Sister Aloysius is against the use of secular songs in the school pageant and has even banned the children from using ballpoint pens. She is deeply suspicious of Father Flynn, particularly when he gives a sermon on doubt.

The two are set against each other in a moral struggle when Sister Aloysius is alerted by young, innocent Sister James (Adams) that Father Flynn may have made improper advances towards student Donald Miller (Foster), who also happens to be the school's first black pupil.

Sister Aloysius realises she is a matriarch in a patriarchal society and the priest is the boss. But, armed with only her conviction, she attempts to have Father Flynn removed from the school and the audience is left to decide who is right.

In the movie's best scene, she tries to enlist the support of Donald's mother (Davis) but is stunned by her reaction. Mrs Miller would gladly accept Father Flynn's advances if it allowed Donald to stay in school, thus avoiding a beating from his father.

Your perception of what went before and your attitudes to the main characters will be challenged. Even Sister Aloysius is not as one-dimensionally austere as she first appears.

Despite the fine performances, there are weaknesses with the plot. For instance, it is unlikely that Sister Aloysius would have sided with Sister James when she confided her fears about Father Flynn and the final scene is a letdown.

A good film, certainly, but it does not equal the sum of its parts.

Glenn Mason