The year is 1942 and Lancashire in Northern England is experiencing what just about every city, town or village in the United Kingdom is as the Allies are massing their forces to battle the Nazi menace, using the island nation as a base with a view to launching a major assault on the Continent some time in the future. In this particular town, the locals, having seen their young men shipped off abroad a while ago, have mixed feelings about this influx of new arrivals from the United States, the women are excited by having these exotic-seeming G.I.s in their midst, but it is hard to ignore the resentment that others hold, especially when romances start to blossom...
Director John Schlesinger had been off in Hollywood making movies when he was offered the chance to helm a pet project of his choice off the back of recent successes, and he chose this tale of his childhood, indicated by his director's credit appearing on the screen over a shot of the little boy in the family half the running time focused on. There were two plotlines presented concurrently here, one where G.I. Richard Gere, playing Matt Dyson, and local lass Jean Moreton, played by Lisa Eichhorn, strike up a romance now her boyfriend (Derek Thompson) is away, the other with Helen (Vanessa Redgrave) and John (William Devane) doing much the same from an older perspective.
Not that much older, but it was evident these middle-aged lovers were intended to mark a contrast between the guilt-ridden excitement of Matt and Jean, as although Helen is married and her husband is fighting abroad, and John is wed too, but estranged, we were not meant to be too judgemental when we watched their union progress. Indeed, here was a case of adultery where the woman was not set up to be lambasted for her choices, she was not enjoying John's company for the sex, though that was part of it and represented as a healthy impulse, more for the company as she is isolated in this remote town, her children in boarding schools and friends few and far between.
Meanwhile, the story that garnered most of the attention at the time saw then-rising star Gere prove himself a charismatic lead and able to carry a picture, something the producers of An Officer and a Gentleman were obviously watching and making notes about. Matt is fairly pushy at first, spotting Helen from afar and homing in on her, much to her embarrassment, but he is respectful and does not force the young woman to do anything she does not want to. In a secondary (or perhaps tertiary) plot, their pals Wendy Morgan and Chick Vennera also romance each other, though their relationship moves a lot faster and they get married, despite not knowing if they will see the other again after the troops are shipped out to France - in case you think this is really speedy, the film spanned a couple of years all told.
Schlesinger, working from a screenplay co-written by soon to be Oscar winner Colin Welland, had the wartime romances of his youth in mind when he recreated that sort of cinema for Yanks, though thanks to the loosening of censorship he was able to depict them with more grit and realism than they had back in the nineteen-forties. So there was swearing, nudity (including the Americans in a communal shower tent), more explicit sex (not there for the sake of it, such scenes carried narrative heft), and even a tackling of racism in the U.S. Army when bigoted Southern soldiers violently object to black soldiers dancing with white English girls, then are put in their place. All this felt highly authentic, and despite the aforementioned realism there was a nostalgia there, yet for that reason this did come across as a little out of time, like it could be split into three for a Sunday evening TV drama. Worth mentioning, nevertheless, was Rachel Roberts as the ultimate in passive aggression, disapproving of daughter Jean hanging around with Matt. Music by Richard Rodney Bennett.
[Eureka's Blu-ray looks better than the DVD, soft focus notwithstanding, and has a Schlesinger interview/commentary (audio only) and the trailer as extras, plus subtitles]