As many movie fans know by now, the prologue to last summer's Tropic Thunder features some brilliant spoof trailers, including one for a phony film called Satan's Alley (which won the "coveted Crying Monkey Award at the Beijing Film Festival"). Better seen than described, it's a brilliant deconstruction of every pompous award-hungry film that comes out in December. The trailer for John Patrick Shanley's Doubt looks a lot like that, but if I've learned one thing this year, it's to not trust trailers. Happily, the real Doubt is a great deal sprightlier, cleverer and more powerful than its dreadful promo would suggest.

Shanley is a playwright who occasionally forays into movies, and he adapted his own 2004 play into the screenplay for Doubt. He won a Best Screenplay Oscar for Moonstruck (1987), and his other writing work ranges from Five Corners (1987) to an adaptation of Congo (1995). As a director, Doubt is only his second feature; his first came 18 years ago, with the bizarre, wonderful, underrated Joe vs. the Volcano (1990). That movie was a highly stylized, colorful, very dry, very black romantic comedy that left most Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan fans (or, to put it another way, just about everybody on the planet) completely baffled. Shanley brings some of that same skill and style to Doubt, although this time expectations and delivery are more in harmony.

Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Father Flynn, the priest at a Catholic school in 1964. The film begins with one of his sermons, a fascinating one on the unifying quality of despair, and Shanley spends a good deal of time looking up and down the pews, spying on fidgeting students and wandering attention spans. It's a fairly quirky beginning for what's to come. The school's first and only black student (Joseph Foster) has been successfully attending, mingling with his fellow students and enjoying his position as an altar boy. It slowly comes to light that Father Flynn has been lavishing extra attention on the boy, giving him presents and mysteriously returning articles of clothing to the boy's locker. One day, the boy returns to class, distraught after a meeting with Father Flynn, and the young history teacher Sister James (Amy Adams) begins to suspect that there might have been some inappropriate advances.

She reports her fears to the school's principal, Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Meryl Streep, speaking with an unexplained New York accent). The nuns call Father Flynn in for a meeting -- purportedly about the Christmas pageant -- but Sister Aloysius begins using wicked, passive-aggressive psychology to get him to fess up; she accuses him without accusing him. She also meets with the boy's mother (Viola Davis), with results so unexpected that even Sister Aloysius is at a loss for words. Flynn claims he's only protecting the boy, who needs a bit of special care to survive his troubled times. Meanwhile, Sister James, with her good and simple heart, begins to believe the loving Father over the snippy, nasty Sister Aloysius.

Shanley doesn't play this out like a courtroom drama, where all the facts come out and someone is proved correct; this story is about faith, or gossip, or... doubt. What he does instead is use his four actors (plus a smattering of other characters added for the film) like chess pieces. Using precise, playful editing, the film revels in the pauses between moments, lingering on delightfully distracting details like sugar in tea, bursting light bulbs, or Father Flynn's long, clean fingernails. Characters often take a moment to digest lines before replying, perhaps setting up a pause or a look as another weapon in their personal artillery. It's the battle that matters more than the victor, and Shanley has mounted a spectacular one.

All the performances are outstanding (Streep adds weight to the fairly thin Sister Aloysius character), but Shanley has happily managed to adapt the Sister James character to Amy Adams' unique screen persona, similar to the characters she played in Junebug, Enchanted and Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day. She's absolutely delightful, widening her eyes and squeaking out lines like "I like 'Frosty the Snowman'!" with maximum adorableness. The great cinematographer Roger Deakins captures the essence of the school, the wind and snow, the sturdy old wooden doors, the holiday lights, the metal lockers, and Shanley has the sensibility to slow down from time to time for these luscious details. The film moves swiftly at 104 minutes, a great deal shorter and leaner than most of this season's other sluggish award contenders.

But I'm afraid it doesn't quite qualify as a masterpiece. Its major flaw is that, like some of the most rudimentary comedies, Shanley lets the humor drop during the third act. (The filmmakers suddenly need to spend more time wrapping up plot threads.) I don't want to suggest that a movie about potential pedophile priests should be hilarious, but the movie begins unmistakably with a lighter tone, and it's disappointing when Shanley fails to sustain it or at least let it play out to a satisfactory turning point. (Sadly, even Sister James leaves the picture for a short time in the second half to visit an ailing family member.) However, the emotional and ideological thrust remains until the final frame, and Doubt emerges as a fascinating picture, one that I'd like to see again.

For more on Doubt, see Cinematical's interview with writer-director John Patrick Shanley.