When the subject is romance, the Brits have come a long way from the days of Jane Austen. For one thing, if Born Romantic reflects any reality at all, today's young Londoners, male and female, are brazenly up-front about their sexual needs. There are no shy, stolen kisses in a rose-covered gazebo for Frankie and Eleanor, Eddie and Jocelyn and Fergus and Mo--the three couples whose stories unfold in this hip, fast-moving comedy of manners. They're more likely to grab a quickie in the loo.

But, in its own hard-edged way, Born Romantic is as sentimental as any old-fashioned love story. It also offers a keen commentary on how contemporary life, with all its freedoms, can be as emotionally damaging as the sexually repressed societies of old. Such philosophical reflections may occur to you only after seeing Born Romantic, however; during it, you'll be too busy trying to keep up with the fast-paced goings-on among all these zany characters.

Much of the action takes place late at night, in an East End salsa club, where three casual friends, Eleanor, Jocelyn and Mo, frequently hang out. Eleanor (Olivia Williams) is a cool, regal-looking beauty who loves to dance and digs any guy who'll let her show off on the dance floor. When first approached by Frankie (Craig Ferguson), who looks and acts a little like a bumbling Dean Martin, she rebuffs him with the line, 'You don't have a symmetrical face.' Inexplicably, Frankie falls hard.

Joycelyn (the beautiful Catherine McCormack, disguised as a plain Jane) rarely gets to dance, for she's usually cowering in a corner, wearing her glasses and a neck brace--not for medical reasons, but to hide what she thinks is an ugly neck. When a petty thief named Eddie (Jimi Mistry) stumbles into the salsa club to escape the police, he drags Jocelyn to the dance floor to pretend he's been there all along. Once more, inexplicably, when their eyes meet Eddie is smitten.

Fergus (David Morrissey), once a briefly shining rock star, has come to London to find his true love, the fiance he ran out on eight years before. It takes a bit of wandering around the city, and more than a bit of help from Jimmy, an all-knowing taxi driver, before Fergus finds Mo (Jane Horrocks) in the salsa club. And, again, inexplicably (at least from Fergus' point of view), Mo will have nothing to do with him. She's just fine, thank you, living on her own and shagging whomever she likes.

Born Romantic is wonderfully written. As the three men try to figure out what these women want, and the women wonder why they don't want what these three guys have got, they all engage in lots of funny, clever street talk and scatterings of corny love talk. Simple words of wisdom also come from Jimmy, the on-call taxi driver and surrogate guardian angel who, at one time or another, ferries each of the principal characters and gets to know them better than they know themselves. Jimmy is the romantic heart of Born Romantic, the advisor and facilitator and friend to all the others--and eventually to himself--and it helps immeasurably that this pivotal character is played by an actor as physically and emotionally compelling as Adrian Lester.

However, this movie is not a star vehicle, it's an ensemble piece, and what a rich ensemble it presents--some of Britain's best and brightest young performers. Each actor is allowed his/her star turn, and some moments are priceless. Notable among them: Frankie's crooning rendition of a 1950s hit called 'L-O-V-E,' backed by a band of old-timers he has painstakingly put together in an effort to finally woo his lady love.

There are two outstanding stars in Born Romantic--but they're not of the human variety. No. 1, the music: Never has a British movie made such brilliant use of Latin-style popular music. The incongruous salsa beat (incongruous because this is London, after all) gives the film an energetic bounce and flow, a real sense of 'nowness.' The other 'star' of this engaging, enlightening and exhilarating romantic comedy is the city of London itself. When the camera is not getting down and dirty in the street scenes and interiors of the salsa club, it repeatedly sweeps over the new high-rise skyline of one of the world's most ancient cities. At night, London now sparkles and gleams and looks for all the world like Woody Allen's Manhattan.

Hmmm. London and New York; it's tempting to make other comparisons. In the HBO series 'Sex and the City,' the three female leads, prototypical New Yorkers, never seem to find a loving and lasting connection with the men they encounter. Whereas, in the London-based Born Romantic, a Jane Austen sort of sensibility ultimately prevails, and each of these women is eventually won over. Which means that their guys finally get it together to do the right thing--the romantic thing.

--Shirley Sealy