Willian Ivory’s screenplay for The Great Escaper allows the audience to experience the trauma of war, survivor guilt, and the struggles of old age facing death. The script is based on the true story of 89-year-old Bernie Jordan who left his care home to travel alone to France for the 70th anniversary celebrations of the D-Day landings. This retelling of his story forgoes the media hype which originally caught the public’s imagination, preferring to explore the anguish caused by war. This is much more than a feel-good movie.
The themes are enhanced but not overshadowed by the presence of acting royalty Michael Caine and Glenda Jackson as Bernie and his wife Irene. Caine is mesmeric as the loving husband who has carried the pain of wartime memories silently and bravely throughout his life. Jackson, in her final performance, is wickedly sardonic as the wife who aids Bernie and adores him, but never lets him see her without her full makeup. Left back in the Care home Irene strikes up a sparky but affectionate relationship with carer Adele, beautifully played by Danielle Vitalis. The concerned Adele asks Irene for her prognosis, and she replies, ‘I needn’t start any long books’.
John Standing is the RAF veteran who befriends Caine and carries his own torment. Each of the veterans we meet, German or Allies, have memories which haunt them. Nor are recent conflicts ignored, Victor Oshin, as a soldier who lost his legs in Afghanistan, is deeply troubled by his past.
Director Oliver Parker uses flashbacks to show war and the couple’s love story. Alongside close-ups of Caine’s face, conveying both determination and humour, there are panoramic views. The film opens with the crashing of the waves, foretelling the power of the sea during the Normandy landings. We are with Caine in his rage when the camera pulls back in a war cemetery and we see row after row of 5000 graves and the wasted lives they represent. But, the beauty of nature provides a counterpoint to the horror of war. This is particularly evident when the couple stands in awe of the ‘holy hour’, that time between daylight and darkness when the world is bathed in a golden glow.
A well-judged film, revealing the humanity behind the newspaper fanfare. We meet many aspects of Bernie and Irene, their suffering, their friendships and their happiness. The Great Escaper is a fitting tribute to the couple and to Caine and Jackson.
In Cinemas Nationwide now