Times Staff Writer

"Winter Flight" (at Beverly Center Cineplex) plays like a British "Officer and a Gentleman" stripped of glamour.

But the appealing modesty of this final offering in David Puttnam's "First Love" series is blasted by a final surprise twist--a twist that merely seems evasive in raising last-minute questions that must go unanswered for lack of time. Although the ending is not quite telegraphed by director Roy Battersby and writer Alan Janes, don't be surprised if you guess it.

At a Royal Air Force base near Cambridge arrives a newcomer (played winningly by Reece Dinsdale) who could scarcely be wetter behind the ears. The kid actually takes an encyclopedia with him to a rough bar on a Saturday night, an act that results in a brutal, humiliating hazing. This sequence unfolds with a slow, casual violence absolutely chilling in its utter believability, laying bare in all its savagery the bully mentality with its fear and hatred of knowledge and learning.

One of the witnesses to the beating is a pretty barmaid (Nicola Cowper) who takes a liking to the unprepossessing but sensitive Dinsdale. She's already pregnant when she meets Dinsdale, but for reasons never explained--another evasion--has allowed too much time to pass for an abortion. The crux of the matter becomes her determination to put the baby up for adoption regardless of Dinsdale's eagerness to marry her and claim the child as his own.

The sorting out of this couple's feelings has such a refreshing realism, and Dinsdale and Cowper are so likable, that the resolution of their conflict seems all the more contrived. Not helping matters is that, preceding the ending, Cowper goes into labor just as the base commences a drill alert, setting up a rather too-pointed contrast between men playing at war while a woman gives birth.

Chris Menges, no less, is the film's cameraman, and although it's in color, he gives it the appropriately drab look of the English working-class movies of the '50s and '60s. A few shots of Cambridge and its hallowed university set off the sterility of the base.

For all of Dinsdale and Cowper's considerable charm, "Winter Flight" (Times-rated Mature for adult themes) is too uneven to be recommended with much enthusiasm.

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