“Her English accent wanders around her mouth like a playful ice cube.”
Have pity on The Return of the Soldier. Shot in England in 1982, the film did not get American distribution until 1985. It flitted in and out of big city art houses, showed up on an early generation video, then disappeared without a trace. Now it has crept onto a no-frills DVD from Trinity Home Entertainment, but nobody has paid much notice. It’s no wonder, since the Trinity website announces that they do not sell directly to consumers, only to retailers. Marketing has been nil. It finally showed up on Amazon several weeks after its announced release date. Jeez. Is there a conspiracy to keep this film from public view? Though a bit of a slog at the end, it is worth the considerable effort required to find it.
Based on a 1918 short novel by Rebecca West, The Return of the Soldier stars the late Alan Bates as an aristocratic English captain home from the Great War. He is suffering from amnesia, that most threadbare of plot devices. But its cause is shell shock, certainly a common enough affliction of war veterans. He dispassionately views his brittle, haughty wife (Julie Christie) as some decorative trinket ricocheting around their cavernous country estate. His spinster cousin (Ann-Margret) is his loyal, solicitous companion filled with unrequited love. Only his dowdy, lower-class childhood sweetheart (Glenda Jackson) offers him the happy memories he cherishes.
The Return of the Soldier is watchable if for no reason but to keep company with powerhouse British actors. All that repressed pain and those cross purposes make for ripe confrontations. Christie portrays a woman so fustian, so unhinged by her husband’s condition, and so disdainful of Jackson that, as Pauline Kael pointedly observed, she is funny. She exposes her character’s cold-heartedness divinely with such venomous lines as “She stinks of poverty and neglect.” Christie avoids cartoon villainy, however, with a humanizing and melancholic soliloquy on the joys of married life before the war took it all away. Jackson, as a frump self-conscious of her status, offers a restrained, warm, and sympathetic performance. This woman has suffered great loss more than once, and Jackson lets you feel it. Bates works reliably well, conveying childishness, confusion, and a fallen masculine grandeur. His is the pivotal role; with each actress he assumes a different behavior fitting his fractured memory. Bates had worked advantageously with Christie in Far From the Madding Crowd (1967) and The Go-Between (1971) and with Jackson in Women in Love (1970), so his comfort with both actresses is fully evident here.
Which brings us to Ann-Margret. For many years following her revelatory performance in Carnal Knowledge (1971), she attempted to prove herself as a Serious Dramatic Actress. The Return of the Soldier represents yet another effort in that direction, but it does not pay dividends. With her pursed lips and high-collared lace, she overcompensates for her presence among superior talent. Her English accent wanders around her mouth like a playful ice cube. Granted her role is underwritten, and director Alan Bridges could have encouraged her to show more ginger, but she looks forever at sea. Oh, how this role screams for Sarah Miles, Eileen Atkins, or Diana Quick.
The Return of the Soldier is a handsome production taking full advantage of the verdant countryside of East Sussex and the posh interiors of lavish Firle Place. Acclaimed composer Richard Rodney Bennett (Nicholas and Alexandra, Murder on the Orient Express) contributes a properly moody score. Ian Holm and Frank Finlay support the proceedings commendably, while Bridges’ methodical direction makes no attempt to disguise a thin plot. He points his camera toward mirror reflections to suggest power relations, and foreshadows a key point by the caress of a gloved finger on a porcelain cherub. This is, after all, a study of characters, not story, so we idle with a prim crowd. The DVD transfer is gorgeous with nary a blemish in sight, though the package is so bare bones it does not even include the movie’s trailer, much less optional subtitles.
The film is blighted by an unsatisfying conclusion. There is the doctor’s mumbo-jumbo on the morality of reacquainting someone with the bitter truths of his forgotten life. If taken literally, this guy is an unrefined quack. The eleventh-hour revelations are neither surprising nor particularly weighty dramatically. By the time The Return of the Soldier makes its way to a finale, you might have to stifle a shrug. But that should not destroy the noble efforts that came before.