The Plot: June 2014. 70th Anniversary commemorations to mark D-Day are due to take place in France. Bernard (Michael Caine) is pushing 90 and lives in a coastal English care home with his wife Rene (Glenda Jackson). A former soldier who stormed the Sword beach on D-Day, he missed an opportunity to take part in the formal commemoration. That’s not going to stop him returning to Normandy though. He slips out one morning and boards the ferry. This causes an initial panic among the care home employees as he goes AWOL, sparking media interest. While on the ferry, he encounters fellow veteran and former RAF pilot Arthur (John Standing) – who also needs to be there and also has a ghost from the past to lay to rest…
The Verdict: Michael Caine recently admitted that The Great Escaper may be his last role. At the grand old age of 90, anything now from the beloved actor who has been onscreen for over six decades is a gift to audiences everywhere. He’s certainly found a peach of a part for his last hurrah… unless of course Christopher Nolan can tempt him back with another film. It’s not one of Caine’s bracingly honest ‘pay the rent’ films that he’s been humble about either. It’s an altogether more heartfelt film that mines the actor’s talents in engaging an audience with little apparent effort. Real actors don’t act after all – they just become the character without any theatrical bells and whistles attached. Caine is a master of that. The Great Escaper is then what the real-life Bernard Jordan was dubbed by the press, when the veteran escaped across the channel to the D-Day celebrations and became a national story.
Admittedly, it’s not a lot to hang a story for a film on. The script by William Ivory leans a good bit on the slight and whimsical side, similar to another film released earlier this year about an aging man confronting the ticking clock and assessing his life’s worth (The Unlikely Pilgrimage Of Harold Fry). Ivory builds up a story based on small moments: a younger British soldier who fought in Afghanistan and is wounded in more than just physical ways; an encounter with some equally shell-shocked German veterans who tried to hold the beach from the other side; Rene’s musings with sprightly caregiver Adele (Danielle Vitalis) back home. This is further built up with brief but effective bursts of flashbacks to Bernard and Rene’s war days when they fell for each other. Budgetary limitations are evident from the few visual effects shots of the D-Day landings, but the immersive sound design is more than enough to suggest the hell and fury that soldiers on either side faced. For this is a film that is about healing as much as it about remembrance, rather than taking sides.
The two pieces of glue that hold these disparate parts together are Caine and the late Glenda Jackson in her own farewell performance. There’s a lovely, lived-in quality to their onscreen relationship even when they’re apart for most of the film. Both of them look visibly frail, but they give it their all and with a twinkle in their eyes too. Jackson gets to deliver the best lines and is a hoot, keeping the British end up back home while harbouring a secret of her own (this is paid off in the moving closing credits). For his part, Caine brings warmth and humour to Bernard without being overly sentimental about his backstory. There’s enough sketched in by director Oliver Parker to tell the audience all it needs to know. He then just lets the camera roll and Caine expertly fills out the rest for it to become an emotionally resonant, cross-generational film that is slightly deeper in its approach than its trailer suggests. The Great Escaper is all the better for it then and is worth escaping to for 96 engaging minutes.
Rating: 3.5 / 5
Review by Gareth O’Connor
The Great Escaper
Worth escaping to
The Great Escaper (UK / USA / 12A / 96 mins)
In short: Worth escaping to
Directed by Oliver Parker.
Starring Michael Caine, Glenda Jackson, John Standing, Danielle Vitalis, Wolf Kahler.