February 15, 1993 12:00 PM

Richard Gere, Jodie Foster, James Earl Jones

Gere, the eponymous hero of this deeply affecting drama, returns to his old Tennessee home some years after leaving his wife (Foster) and their son (Brett Kelley). The family plantation may be the worse for wear—it hears the post—Civil War ravages of plundering Yankees and too many seasons of cotton planting—but Gere is much the better for it. He left town a bibulous brute and blackguard. He has returned a tender, thoughtful fellow, solicitous of his former slaves and a devoted, passionate lover to the understandably skeptical Foster. Thinking her long absent husband dead, Foster had accepted the proposal of a neighbor (Bill Pullman), who is now embittered and bent on revenge. But her doubts melt under Gere’s persistent heat, and she’s the first to throw in her support—and her heirloom brooch—when her husband galvanizes the neighbors to pool their resources and try a new cash crop: tobacco.

Some of the pieces, though, just won’t fall into place. When, for example, Gere goes to be fitted for boots, his feet have shrunk two sizes; he doesn’t recognize the name of the man who’d been his best friend, and he’s treated like a stranger by his old dog. Mailers come to a head when Gere is arrested and tried for murder (with Jones in fine form as the presiding judge).

Sommersby, which closely resembles the 1982 French film The Return of Martin Guerre, is an unabashedly old-fashioned romance full of vivid panoramas, rich period flavor and—accept this as the price of admission—loud music that telegraphs the movie’s every intention. Gere hasn’t been so appealing since An Officer and a Gentleman. Come to think of it, he has never been so appealing. He and Foster, who displays atypical warmth and typical conviction, play beautifully together. Get out your handkerchiefs. (PG-13)

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