At the beginning of "The Return of the Soldier," Chris (Alan Bates), an English landed gent, comes back from World War I, and the bombs have left him a little dotty -- he thinks the last 20 years haven't happened, that he's once again a lad of 20. In psychiatric terms, this is regression; in movie-reviewing terms, it's time to get your Necco Wafers.
Chris' wife (Julie Christie) falls into the 20-year gap; he's back to escorting Margaret (Glenda Jackson), his first love, who's also married now. Watching all this is his spinster cousin Jenny (Ann-Margret), quietly in love with him all this time. The missus gets angry; coz gets concerned; a shrink makes a house call (there'll always be an England). "You can't shut out pain like this and pretend it never happened," he says wisely. "That's not happiness -- it's make-believe."
What's weird about "The Return of the Soldier" is that, for a psychological melodrama, it has all the earmarks of a Hammer horror movie from the 1950s -- the overheated dream sequences and theatrical blocking and minor-key recorder and violin score. Hiding out in her nightgown, her hair frizzed out like Elsa Lanchester's, Christie hisses and glowers through her role -- you keep expecting her to levitate before someone skewers her with a silver spike in the heart.
In "The Return of the Soldier," the Captain's shell shock seems to be contagious. Ann-Margret wears no makeup, which is our clue that this is a Serious Performance; but without her glamor, there's not much there. Jackson has some of her usual charisma, but she's so busy being a good-hearted old lump that her performance never connects with anything real. Walking stiffly, as if he's measuring the field for a pickup soccer game, Bates can be goofily engaging, but like everyone else, he seems to be underwater -- "The Return of the Soldier" is so slow it might have been directed by Jacques Cousteau. The only life in the movie comes from Jeremy Kemp, as a stewbum with a face so red his head seems about to explode.
By the end, Chris regains his memory and becomes, in his wife's words, "every inch a soldier." By which point you may find yourself converting this to metric equivalents -- anything to pass the time.
Return of the Soldier, opening today at the K-B Cinema, is unrated and contains some violence.