The Great Escaper is a Welcome Send Off for Glenda Jackson and Michael Caine

Director Oliver Parker and screenwriter William Ivory’s true-life incident story The Great Escaper is not at all the film one goes in expecting. The preconceived notion is that it will be a fairly slight retelling of WWII veteran Bernard (Bernie) Jordan’s much reported on at the time ‘escape’ from his Hove nursing home to attend the 70th Anniversary celebrations of D-Day in Normandy in 2014. A jolly good “We won the war celebration of veterans,” and one man’s persistence in getting across the channel to be there. Instead, Parker and Ivory take the bare bones of Bernie’s story and turn it into a meditation on the futility of war, PTSD, the indignities of old age, and a sweeping love story between Bernie (Michael Caine) and his wife of many years, Irene (Glenda Jackson).

It’s not uncommon for British films to take an actor of advancing years and follow him as he goes on a bit of a wander and becomes a small celebrity. Two fiction examples recently are Timothy Spall in The Last Bus and Jim Broadbent in The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. Neither are particularly awful films, just simply forgettable. The one thing they do bring up is making one wonder why such established talents end up in cinematic treacle. Imagining that the great Glenda Jackson’s final role was going to be in something similar (and now knowing that Caine has retired from acting) was positively painful. Thankfully, William Ivory, the writer of Made in Dagenham, was not interested in making a grey-rinsed crowd-pleaser.

Bernie and Rene (played in their youth by Will Fletcher and Laura Marcus) have been in love for seventy-years. Rene’s health is failing, and Bernie decided to move them both into The Pines care home to ensure that Rene is properly cared for. Bernie’s health is more robust, and he is free to come and go as he pleases from the facility. They are still madly in love with each other, with Rene insisting on putting on her daily makeup before Bernie can see her. For the couple their youth may have faded but their love has not. Therefore, when Rene sees Bernie fixating over WWII mementos, she realises that he needs to go to the D-Day Celebrations and cheekily suggests he make his own way after missing out on being invited via official channels. He’s reluctant to leave her with her health being so fragile but takes the journey when she gives him the nudge.

Twin narratives are set up once Bernie makes his escape – essentially an echo of Rene and Bernie’s past with him being absent and her not knowing where he is (for a while at least) and Rene keeping the home fires burning and developing a strong relationship with a young care worker, Adele (Danielle Vitalis). Oliver Parker switches the audience not only between Rene in Hove and Bernie’s journey, but also through the memories that both Rene and Bernie cherish and are haunted by.

Bernie ends up in Portsmouth and gets on the ferry. He isn’t part of any regimental group and only has a standing ticket despite often needing a wheelchair or walking stick. The ninety-year-old former Royal Navy man wearing his medals on his modest suit is aided by a young and medically discharged army veteran, Scott Selwood (Victor Oshin) who is not coping with the transition to civilian life. Bernie also meets an Etonian who was part of the RAF, Arthur Howard-Johnson (John Standing) who essentially adopts the working-class Bernie as his drinking partner and cabin mate.

Far from a grand adventure to honour the military and the day the Allied forces began the liberation of France and turned the tide on the Western front, Bernie is on a smaller more personal mission. To finally reunite a lost young soldier with his precious possession thrust into the young Bernie’s hands before he pushed him on to the shore. The pomp and ceremony confuse him. Being treated like a hero confuses him and receiving thanks from elderly French residents embarrasses him. Arthur is taking it all in seemingly more in his stride, but it is revealed that he too has a tragic history with D-Day that led to an unthinkable death and years of self-recrimination and alcoholism.

Back in Hove Rene remembers her love story with Bernie and the pleasures and horrors she too faced. An evocation of the young lovers seeing the “holy hour” of the sunlight as dawn breaks. The picking of a dog rose (a long-kept memento), the discussion of poodles. Then telling Adele that she regrets allowing Bernie to leave for war every time he did.

The Great Escaper is not without moments of sentimentality, but they are placed in different contexts than the audience may expect. Bernie comforting an elderly German soldier in a French pub (a powerful almost wordless performance by Wolf Kahler) where the assembled men salute each other. The moments where Bernie and Arthur stand in the military cemetery with Arthur finally saying farewell to his brother, Oliver and Bernie saying farewell to a man he believed he sent to his death.

Conversely, The Great Escaper is also replete with a wicked sense of humour with Glenda Jackson proving why she was a screen icon. Her Rene is not going gently into that good night until she reminds everyone that she was once young and that the young should embrace living. Hers is a marvellous performance which draws on her often-underrated comedic talents (she was known mostly for her excellent and often transgressive dramatic work).

There are no shortages of films depicting the war is hell maxim, and there are many that are openly critical about the kind of propaganda that war narratives perpetuate. The Great Escaper doesn’t need to beat you around the head with the fact that war is a waste of young lives and the deaths of countless innocents. Audiences already know that and are watching real world conflicts at this very moment where death tolls are incalculable. It also isn’t saying that World War II was a war fought without purpose. It is reminding the viewer that the cost goes far beyond the conflict itself. Two old veterans deal with their own ghosts and perceived failures while the young man, Selwood is self-destructing because he has no identity. Bernie tells him to “Get some fucking help,” before it is too late.

Subverting a feel-good news piece into a meditation on ageing, dignity, grace, life-long love, and what honour means is a brilliant way to reframe Bernard Jordan’s story. Although it has little similarity to what Jordan was trying to do (he really did want to go and wave flags and see The Queen and President Obama) it is a much stronger piece of work than if it had gone for the “real thing.” The Great Escaper is not a bad final curtain for two screen legends, and the final lines will possibly have you shedding a small tear as you realise they are the last Jackson will speak on screen. The Great Escaper is not an engineered feel-good film, but it does succeed in its blend of melancholy and love to make the audience feel good, nevertheless.

Director: Oliver Parker

Cast: Michael Caine, Glenda Jackson

Writer: William Ivory

Nadine Whitney

Nadine Whitney holds qualifications in cinema, literature, cultural studies, education and design. When not writing about film, art or books, she can be found napping and missing her cat.

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