On 6 June 2014 at 10.30am, World War Two veteran Bernard “Bernie” Jordan slipped out unnoticed from his care home in Hove, East Sussex, with his war medals pinned beneath his coat. He took a train from Brighton to Portsmouth then a ferry from England to France, and quietly joined the ranks of those gathered to commemorate the 70th anniversary of D-Day on the beaches of Normandy. In director Oliver Parker’s take on this ripped-from-the-headlines story of British can-do spirit, The Great Escaper, we’re given a neat summation of the media’s reaction to Bernie – one reporter, with a smile plastered across her face, describes him as “an old soldier who will never not answer the call of duty”.
Parker occasionally finds himself drawn into that same pat, patriotic sentimentalism – the type which patronises older generations by treating them as strange curiosities (Look at him go! All the way to France! By himself!) In its best moments, the film functions as more of a character study, brought to life by a pair of established luminaries taking their final bows: Sir Michael Caine (Bernie) in what he’s decided will be his penultimate role, and the late Glenda Jackson, as his wife, Irene. In their depictions, we see a couple who’ve realised they’ve both reached a point in their lives where all they can do is live inside their memories.
Caine, as Bernie, allows his natural, domineering presence to carry most of the performance. But there are times when Parker’s camera will settle quietly on his features, as Caine scans the Normandy ocean, lost in the place that changed him and scarred him in so many ways. We feel his sorrow, certainly, but Caine allows the briefest flash of terror to dance across his eyes – it’s as if he never left these beaches.
In a poignant scene, Bernie and his veteran compatriot sit and drink in a local café (the film was shot entirely in the UK to minimise Covid risk; attempts to recreate France are limited to red wine and accordion music). A small group of Germans are sitting across the room. Bernie invites them over and asks them where they were that day. One of the Germans starts to break down, and Bernie quietly places a hand over his. No further words are spoken and the film thankfully avoids any pat conclusions about guilt and reconciliation. Instead, we’re simply shown a moment of silent communion between two men who may have once fired bullets at each other.
Irene, meanwhile, lingers in their care home. She unpacks boxes and pulls out old photographs. Parker inserts several flashbacks here. They’re a wildly unnecessary distraction from Jackson’s performance, which is a luminous portrayal of the fully internal, and deeply personal, process of reminiscing. The way her face lights up at the memory of a first kiss, a first orgasm, is phenomenal.
The Great Escaper is a little hypocritical, at times – William Ivory’s script does capitalise on the cosier aspects of Bernie’s story: we watch his celebrity grow as French strangers gift him batons of dried sausage as tribute – but ultimately, the film finds a way to undercut all that sentimentality until what we’re left with is the memory of Caine and Jackson, misty-eyed and full of love.
Dir: Oliver Parker. Starring: Michael Caine, Glenda Jackson, Will Fletcher, Laura Marcus, John Standing, Danielle Vitalis, Wolf Kahler, Ian Conningham . 12A, 96 minutes.
‘The Great Escaper’ is in cinemas from 6 October
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