The Great Escaper review: A fitting final film for two British acting legends
The epic acting careers of Michael Caine and the late Glenda Jackson come to a close in this heartwarming tale.
Before Captain Tom Moore, there was Bernard Jordan. In 2014, this 89-year-old World War II veteran made headlines when he took it upon himself to leave his care home, without anyone knowing, and make his way to Dover and then to France, where he joined his comrades-in-arms for the 70th anniversary of D-Day.
It was a heartwarming tale, ripe for cinematic telling, which is exactly what we have with The Great Escaper.
Playing Jordan is the inimitable Sir Michael Caine in what is very likely his last role (he recently told The Telegraph he can no longer walk properly and is effectively retired).
If that is the case, then this is a fine way to bow out of an esteemed career, especially because he is paired with the late Glenda Jackson, who plays Bernie’s wife Rene. They last starred together in The Romantic Englishwoman, Joseph Losey’s 1975 drama.
Living together in the care home in Hove, theirs is a touching relationship and the real heart of the film. Giving her blessing to Bernie’s escapade, Jackson’s Rene may be stay-at-home, but she’s no wallflower, gleefully tucking into her fish’n’chips as she gives the care-home staff the runaround when they realise Bernie has absconded.
Alarm bells are raised, the police are alerted and somewhat predictably, Bernie’s journey goes viral. ‘The Great Escaper’, a pun, of course, on the classic WWII adventure Steve McQueen movie The Great Escape, becomes a hashtag.
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Reminiscent at times of Timothy Spall’s twee tale The Last Bus, Bernard does rely on the kindness of strangers, sometimes very conveniently. Officially, the Royal British Legion trip to Normandy is full, leading to Bernie’s rogue trip. But he fortunately meets Arthur (John Standing), another veteran who invites him to bunk with him. Other generous souls provide sustenance along the way. Narratively, it’s as creaky as old bones at times, but its heart is in the right place.
When Bernie arrives in France, there are demons to vanquish. He meets a PTSD-suffering soldier who causes a scene, an overcooked sequence that could’ve benefitted from more refining. But there are other moments that work extremely well, notably when he and Arthur encounter German counterparts, who have also gathered in Normandy to pay their respects. Meeting in a bar, there’s no animosity; instead, a shared understanding of what they’ve been through.
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British director Oliver Parker is a veteran of comedy films, including remakes of Dad’s Army and St Trinian’s. Here, he avoids making The Great Escaper too cosy, something that was always a risk with a film like this.
The Bernie and Arthur characters both have repressed emotions and events from that fateful day on June 6, 1944, and here is a chance for them to work through something they’ve held on to for seventy years.
Scripted by William Ivory, there are flashbacks, too, to the younger versions of Bernie and Rene, played by Will Fletcher and Laura Marcus, which, if a little simple, aren’t too intrusive to the main narrative.
The story does take some liberties, not least in the way that everyone Bernie meets seems to know who he is. The starstruck ferry staff, for example, are all desperate to foist chocolate and other goodies from the duty free shop onto him.
Some will find all this a little pat - but the real draw is watching Caine, who plays his role with complete dignity. Jackson, too, is an irascible presence, and her performance will move many. The final shots of the two of them on the promenade suggest two epic acting careers that are coming to a close – and suitably, doing so hand-in-hand.
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