Director: Lyndon Chubbuck
Starring: Anna Friel, Molly Parker, Brenda Fricker
In one of my favourite films - William Wyler's Best Picture winning The Best Years of Our Lives - one of the major plot points is the fallout from a relationship begun during the heat of war, when everything seems hurried and romantic and dramatic. Lyndon Chubbuck's The War Bride takes the premise of the drama that potential romantic tragedy could bring and explores it a little further and from the perspective of the wife left behind rather than the husband returning from war. It's not in the same league as Wyler's classic, but it's a good movie and worth a look.
The story begins in London, where Lily (Anna Friel) meets Charlie (Aden Young), a Canadian soldier about to enter into the fray. In fairly short order they fall in love, marry, and have a baby and while Charlie is off fighting, Lily travels with their daughter to Canada to live with her new in-laws on what she has been told is their sprawling prairie ranch. She arrives in Alberta and meets her mother-in-law, Betty (Brenda Fricker), and sister-in-law, Sylvia (Molly Parker), who are none too happy that Charlie's pay no longer goes to them but has been diverted to Lily. She also finds that the majestic homestead she was expecting is a barren farm without running water, miles away from anything.
Lily attempts to make the best of things but is met with hostility at every turn. Syvlia and the other women in town don't much care for the way that Lily dresses, which to their minds is risque, Charlie's former sweetheart, Peggy (Caroline Cave), is still a presence in the house through her friendship with Sylvia, and the already strained relationship between Lily and Sylvia becomes even more so once Sylvia becomes jealous of the amount of attention Lily gets from Joe (Loren Dean), with whom Sylvia has long been in love. Lily soldiers on and eventually wins over Betty and when Charlie finally comes home, she thinks things will finally get better. However, the Charlie who returns is not quite the same Charlie she fell in love with and soon after his return their future seems more uncertain than ever.
At first glance, there's a lot about the story that seems rather rote, but Chubbuck and screenwriter Angela Workman treat it with such care and give it such depths of humanity that you can look past some of the more predicatable aspects of the plot. We can guess, for example, that something will happen between Lily and Joe, that it will be witnessed by exactly the wrong person and that it will be revealed at the exact worst moment. But knowing that doesn't take anything away from the power that that turn ultimately has in the film because the characters are developed and explored well enough that your focus is on them rather than the plot itself.
A lot of the plot hinges on the contrast between glamorous/cosmopolitan Lily and her rural surroundings and their slower way of life. The War Bride uses this distinction not only to provide conflict for the story, but also to allow Lily to be symbolic of one of the film's major themes, which is the romance of war. Charlie, like a lot of men in war stories (and, I would imagine, in real life), joins up for the adventure of it, for the idea of what it is, a fact which is best summed up towards the end when he confides to Lily, "I'd never even been to Calgary." His life was small and the war represented possibilities for a bigger life, a more important life, a life like in stories and movies. Lily, so different from the people back home, was part of that. But then he experienced war and discovered that it's not like how he thought it would be and he returned home and Lily, removed from his more innocent mindset, had lost whatever foothold she had in his imagination. The reality of her in his home comes crashing up against the romantic ideal of escape that she'd represented, resulting in a great deal of pain, confussion and resentment for both.
The film uses Lily, and by extension Friel, very well. She reminded me quite a bit of Scarlett O'Hara in that she has a great deal of tenacity and never simply simpers and gives up when things get hard. If something doesn't work, she figures out a different away to go about it and keeps on doing that until she finally makes some headway. She's a survivor and that makes her very easy to root for. It helps, of course, that Friel's performance is so solid and assured. She carries the film (though she gets some help from Parker and Fricker) and her performance helps make up for some of the more mundane elements of the plot.