After so many movies in which grey-haired, post-middle-age male stars are unaccountably irresistible to girls less than half their age, it’s refreshing to encounter one in which the roles are reversed–even though the “older woman” in this case is only in her early forties and, to be honest, still looks great. If one were grading “Crush” at the halfway point, he might say that it was cute with a capital C, and assign that letter to it. Suddenly, however, the picture–which has been proceeding as a slightly brittle, occasionally explicit but essentially good-hearted comedy about a single teacher’s involvement with a much-younger man (to the accompaniment of acid- tongued commentary from her female buddies)–turns into a tearjerker, embracing some of the crudest conventions of soap opera. (Given what happens, there will be some who rechristen it “Two Near-Weddings and an Off-Screen Funeral.”) Whether the abrupt shift improves things will be a matter of taste. Some will appreciate the move to a more serious tone, while others will miss the earlier lightheartedness and dismiss the last reels as maudlin. At least the transition is a surprise, and the script by director John McKay is praiseworthy for that reason alone, even though the his treatment in the last hour isn’t very imaginative (a last-minute revelation which teaches, in effect, that love can conquer all is particularly heavy-handed). But if, taken in isolation, the second half of “Crush” isn’t appreciably better than the first–only different–the very effort to wed the two disparate parts into a single unit should be applauded. So the original grade is bumped up a bit, though not quite enough to move the picture to passing status.

The central character is an American, Kate (MacDowell), a demanding, somewhat spinsterish headmistress of a genteel British private school. Though the local vicar (Bill Paterson) is obviously interested in her, she spends most of her time commiserating over drinks and smokes with her closest friends, frumpish but good-natured policewoman and single mom Janine (Imelda Staunton) and cynical, thrice-married-and-divorced doctor Molly (Anna Chancellor). The trio mostly complain about their wretched experiences with men, essentially competing to see who’s the most miserable. After a church service, however, Kate encounters Jed (Kenny Doughty), the organist at the local funeral parlor, an erstwhile student who admits he was always infatuated with her. Presently she’s engaging in exuberant sex with him on a fairly regular basis. When her friends discover the relationship they dismiss it as cradle-robbing (and Jed as totally unsuitable in other respects as well) and, with the manipulative Molly in the lead, do everything they can to break it up. Their scheme works all too well, leading to a row between Kate and Jed that has dire consequences. In the aftermath, there’s a scrubbed wedding, some purportedly unexpected medical news, lots of sobs and laughter, and a closing reconciliation that’s a celebration of female solidarity and forgiveness.

MacDowell proves much more adept as Kate than she was playing a wife searching for her lost photographer-husband in the recent “Harrison’s Flowers.” Whenever she has to feign apathy or emotional numbness she still comes across as shell-shocked instead, but in moments of joy she’s almost radiant. Chancellor makes an excellent shrew (one of the most intriguing aspects of the story–not very incisively explored, unhappily–is Molly’s suppressed jealousy toward Kate, which leads to her cruel and destructive behavior), and Staunton a lovable sidekick (she also delivers a few straight dramatic moments very nicely); together the pair toss off their catty, bitchy dialogue with aplomb. (It’s not actually much better than what one might hear on an average sitcom, but it sounds better when delivered with a clipped British accent.) Old pro Paterson, always good at projecting an air of bemused gentility, finds a few rather touching undercurrents in the lovesick minister. But the real find here is newcomer Doughty, who not only invests Jed with a youthful bravado that’s very convincing, but makes him credibly rough and adolescent, too. There’s a moment near the beginning of the picture when you’re afraid Jed’s going to be nothing more than a callow cad toying with his old teacher, but he turns into a far richer character than that, and Doughty captures his complexity very well.

From the technical perspective, “Crush” is quite beautifully made. The locations are lovely, the production design sumptuous, and the cinematography expert; the screen is constantly bathed in a warm glow, all the better–one supposes–to touch the heart while McKay’s writing tickles the funnybone. But while there’s an amiable looseness to the picture’s initial half and some welcome tartness to the second, each is, in its own way, equally contrived. That leaves the whole, despite its splendid packaging, seeming a little empty in the end–neither as amusing as it should be in the first hour, nor as moving as it aims to be in the last. In the end it’s mildly enjoyable, but not enough to be recommendable.