`Return of the Soldier' looks at problems of love, loyalty

``The Return of the Soldier'' is aimed straight at viewers who never miss ``Masterpiece Theatre'' or movies based on respectable novels at least 50 years old. Taken from an early work by Rebecca West, it explores a small but tangled web of intertwined problems -- issues of love, loyalty, and marriage -- in genteel and intelligent terms. It's an involving film, carefully crafted and performed. In the long run, though, its neatness and caution stop it from coming fully alive.

Like the brief novel that inspired it, the movie centers on a shellshocked World War I victim who loses all memory of the past 15 years -- which means he can't remember his wife, but recalls all too well an old flame he broke off with before his marriage.

Returning home, he treats his spouse with as much civility as he can muster for a woman who doesn't even look familiar, and pines for the inamorata whose life he walked out of long before. His family tries to accommodate his sincere distress while figuring out a responsible solution to the various moral, ethical, and just plain practical dilemmas involved.

Although its psychology is leaden at times, especially in the Freudian finale, this is a clever tale that raises a number of provocative questions with few digressions. Padded with some subplots and party scenes, it might have made a dandy PBS three-parter.

But some of the key performers, working as a tight ensemble under director Alan Bridges, tidy up their characters until the action seems more cut and dried than it ought to.

The worst culprit is Glenda Jackson as the soldier's new-old lover. In the novel this is a frowzy, lumpish woman whose down-to-earth manners and shabby raincoat -- innocent, even likable insignias -- positively horrify her boyfriend's pretentious wife. The basics are the same in the movie, but Jackson seems reluctant to plumb the depths of her character's ungainly personality. Except for her big emotional scene near the end, which carries some real weight, she never lets us forget she's acting as busily as can be. The result is a crisp, precise portrayal of a character who needs to project just the opposite traits.

Alan Bates errs by overplaying the soldier's boyishness, which could have been suggested with less-obvious mannerisms. By contrast, Ann-Margret paints a wonderfully modest portrait of his sympathetic cousin, even though the role isn't physically suited to her, a problem heightened by Shirley Russell's costume designs. And there's a spectacular performance by Julie Christie, who manages to fill the screen with her personal radiance while playing the long-suffering wife as a selfish prig who deserves to suffer even longer.

First-rate work by two strong actresses isn't enough to boost ``The Return of the Soldier'' to dramatic heights, though, even when supported by Stephen Goldblatt's rich cinematography. Like the novel it comes from, this is a literate but unexciting excursion.

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