Dir: John McKay. UK. 2001. 111mins

A calculating mixture of hilarity and heartache, Crush is one of the more polished British candidates poised to ride the hem lines of Bridget Jones's success and exploit the expanding market for upscale chick flicks. A first feature from writer-director John McKay, it tries too hard to please all of the people all of the time and may encounter some resistance to a central trio of selfish and often quite unsympathetic female characters. Likely to appeal to an older audience than Bridget Jones, it may also struggle to win over the male half of the market. A pretty, picture postcard vision of rural England should enhance its international appeal and, like Saving Grace, its biggest audience may lie outside its home territory. Sony Classics purchase of all the North American rights was one of a slew of Cannes market sales and would seem to confirm widespread confidence in its ability to perform at the box-office.

Originally entitled The Sad Fuckers Club, Crush focuses on the close bond between three women in a genteel English town and what happens when that bond is threatened by a passionate love affair with a younger man. Forty years old and a respectable pillar of the community, Kate (MacDowell) is the headmistress of a local school. Every Monday she meets up with man-hungry doctor Molly (Chancellor) and sensible policewoman Janine (Staunton) for a girls' night of gin, chocolate, mutual support and commiseration in which they share guilty secrets and compete to be crowned the saddest person of the week.

Distressed and emotional at a funeral, Kate finds her eyes constantly wandering to the handsome new organist Jed (Doughty). Soon, they are having energetic sex in the cemetery and what seems like an uncharacteristic lapse of judgment blossoms into a full-scale romance. When this particular guilty secret is announced to Molly and Janine they are outraged: Jed is only 25, a former pupil at Kate's school and seen as an entirely unsuitable match. The two friends now resort to increasingly desperate and despicable measures to terminate the romance and bring Kate back to her senses with the kind of tragic consequences that unexpectedly pitch the film from breezy comedy to shameless weepie.

Crush never quite recovers from that change of direction and winds up tying itself in knots trying to overcome the loss of the film's most appealing character and re-focus on the friendship between the three women. It grows increasingly farcical before the kind of contrived happy ending that feels the need to tie up every single loose end and unattached character into a tidy little bundle.

Reliant on situation comedy smartness and strong playing, the film comes to the rather dubious conclusion that what women really want from life is a loyal friend and a decent supply of chocolate. There are problems too in a plot that considers a 15-year age gap in a relationship just cause for all-out war, even by two needy women who see cosy vicar Bill Paterson as a more becoming partner for their friend.

The film's strongest card is an exceptionally able cast with the presence of MacDowell and Chancellor likely to invite comparisons with the far more accomplished Four Weddings And A Funeral. Seemingly able to act with every fibre of her abundant locks, an older-looking MacDowell brings a relaxed confidence to her performance and Chancellor relishes her lion's share of the snappy, catty lines as a woman behaving badly. Smouldering object of affection Doughty is never upstaged by his more experienced colleagues and lends a gentle, appealing sincerity to the character that elevates him beyond mere toy boy status. In fact, he is perhaps a little too successful at winning the audience's heart as his absence is sorely felt during the closing stages when the women's actions grow to feel like a betrayal of what he has meant to the story.

Starved of civilised entertainment that even begins to address their needs, middle-aged women may be much more prepared to forgive the film its flaws and simply enjoy the kind of girls night out that Kate and her friends would probably consider unmissable.

Prod co Pipedream Pictures

UK dist Film Four

Int'l sales Film Four

Prod Lee Thomas

Exec prods Paul Webster, Hanno Huth, Julia Chasman

Scr McKay

Cinematography Henry Braham

Prod des Amanda MacArthur

Mus Kevin Sargent

Ed Anne Sopel

Music Kevin Sargent

Main cast Andie MacDowell, Imelda Staunton, Anna Chancellor, Kenny

Doughty, Bill Paterson