The Great Escaper

Ann Rennie 19 February 2024

Bernard Jordan escapes from his care home to attend the 70th Anniversary of the D-Day Landings in France.

The Great Escaper. UK 2023. Starring: Glenda Jackson, Michael Caine, John Standing, Will Fletcher, Laura Marcus, Danielle Vitalis, Victor Oshin, Wolf Kahler. Directed by Oliver Parker. 96 minutes.

This richly rewarding film considers the legacy of war, the joys and challenges of a long-lived and loved marriage, the indignities of old age and the hope and goodwill emblematic of the human spirit. Flashbacks provide an eloquent backstory to both an enduring love story and the reason our aged ‘hero’ takes himself off to the Bayeaux War Cemetery to honour one of his fallen comrades.

Caine and Jackson, luminaries of the British film industry, do an excellent job; their acting skills as keen now in their twilight years as they were when they were the wild young things of the 1960s. The film is based on the 2014 true story of former Royal Navy officer Bernard Jordan who ‘escapes’ from his nursing home in Hove on the Sussex coast to attend the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings in Normandy.

Playing their respective characters, Caine, as Bernie, describes himself as a 90-year-old coffin-dodger. This is contrasted well with the blunt directness of Jackson (in her last film) as Irene, who knowing of her husband’s plan remarks drily that he has been to France before only this time they aren’t shooting at him.

What I found particularly poignant was seeing these two with so little make-up and acting their age. The nursing home scenes and the ones of Bernie with a walker in France or pushing Irene in her wheelchair along the beachfront were reminders of what will happen to all of us, and the grace needed to live this time of life with as much dignity and meaning as possible. The ‘holy hour’ scenes of dawn breaking as their younger selves (Fletcher and Marcus) and 70 years later were touching. These beautiful shots provided calm and a sense of existential hope despite the darkening stain of war and the imminent end of life.

Equally affecting were Bernie’s strong words to a young British ex-soldier suffering from PTSD (Oshin) and his gesture of putting his hand on that of the German soldier Heinrich (Kahler) visiting the beach at Sword where he also saw the horrors of war. There was solidarity here and kindness. Later we come to understand that Bernie too may have suffered mental anguish on his return from active service.

Throughout the film there a number of small but moving moments: Irene when she comforts Adele (Vitalis) her nurse/carer, Arthur (veteran actor John Standing) when he invites Bernie to join his group and the two old men sharing a room. With a little too much alcoholic refreshment there is a bit of verbal biffo between Bernie and the US contingent. Bernie’s off-the-cuff remark about who entered the war first is a winner.

Bernie has regrets and laments the human waste of war. Irene tells him they have lived every moment of their 70 years together. At a time when wars are being fought around the globe, the film is a reminder of gallantry and camaraderie under fire. However, it is the widespread carnage, the unlived potential of young lives sacrificed to the war machine, which leaves one thinking at the end of the film.

And the wonderful performances of Caine and Jackson, past their first fame, but as compelling as ever.

Warner Bros
Release date: 7 March 2024



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