The Great War has resulted in millions of casualties, but many of those still alive are terribly affected by their experiences, as the household of Chris Baldry (Alan Bates) is about to find out. An officer in the British Army, he has been stationed on the Continent and when his family - wife Kitty (Julie Christie) and cousin Jenny (Ann-Margret) - who live at their country house do not hear from him by letter for a while, they cannot allow themselves to be alarmed or anxious, they must hold onto the idea that Chris will be all right. But he is not, he has been shell shocked, and now the two women discover this from a visitor from the village, Margaret Grey (Glenda Jackson) - but why her?
Return of the Soldier probably slots into the category of British heritage cinema, which tended to concentrate on the nation's upper classes and was graced with many a shot of rolling hills and rural estates; in the nineteen-eighties it seemed like these and Film Four were the only things keeping any kind of British film industry alive. This one was based on the novel by Rebecca West, the pen name of a writer who had published this book, her first, at the tail end of the First World War and was distinguished by being a work by a woman about the effects of the conflict, not merely any book but the sole effort released by a woman on this subject while the battles were still raging.
Albeit not for much longer, but West went onto a prestigious career in writing, earning a Damehood for her services, and her close association with H.G. Wells made her the focus of much attention outside of her literature and journalism. It was only a matter of time before something in her canon was adapted to the screen, and though television had raided her product, Return of the Soldier would be the only feature film translated - just - making it into cinemas within her lifetime. At the time it was largely dismissed as a film as one of those stuffy exhibits of a bygone age that was pointedly ignoring the issues arising from Thatcher's Britain, and was rather lost in the shuffle.
However, after a while the film began to pick up a following, and not from those who had read the source material either, as the acting heavyweights who populated the cast attracted interest that for the fans, paid off in huge dividends. There are those who find this film very moving and compassionate, dealing as it did with Chris returning home and not remembering his wife due to the dreadful experiences on the battlefield wiping his memory, though this amnesia only goes back so far. He does recall old girlfriend Margaret, and it is she he wants to spend time with, much to the horror of Kitty, the woman who arranged for him to be brought back. Jenny is more sympathetic, and wants only the best for her relative, but he cannot stay in this bubble of illusion for the rest of his life, can he?
That was the main theme, not so much mental illness and the shattering impact it can have on a previously stable set of relationships, though that was definitely present, more that loss of innocence. That sounds like a cliché, the whole "Oh, it was fine before the war!" sentiment that has informed many a nostalgic piece (even ones where war is not mentioned), but here it was made apparent that maybe this was a false reassurance, and really there is no time in the past where everything is completely content for time always moves on, and the ups are as inevitable as the downs. If anything, the downs are more inevitable, as we learn that Chris may be blocking out more than the war from his broken mind, and the sense of tragedy weighs heavy no matter how much energy he puts into staying in the point in time he was happiest. As said, those who appreciate Return of the Soldier find it desperately sad, but there was a potential to disturb here too; underrated initially, it fails to conclude quite as satisfyingly as you may like, but there was something pathetic about the characters that was troubling. Evocative music by Richard Rodney Bennett.