Gemma Creagh flees the Great Escaper
The Great Escaper is based on the true story of a British Royal Navy veteran who slips away from his nursing home in England on a pilgrimage to the World War II commemorations in France.
On his daily excursion to the local coffee dock, elderly gentleman Bernard Jordan (Michael Caine) is cut off by an ignorant cyclist; he’s invisible to this rude man because of his age and infirmity, but Bernard quietly takes stock and plots his revenge. When Bernard returns to the facility he lives in, he is greeted by his sharp tongued wife Rene (Glenda Jackson). Their back and forth bickering is underpinned by a deep affection. Bernard is disappointed when he discovers he missed the cut off date for registration and now won’t be able to attend the D-Day commemorations in Normandy. Rene insists, despite her failing health, that he forgets about the group, and makes the journey by himself.
Starting with a failed attempt to board a bus, then hailing a cab, Bernard finally makes his ferry, spending all his cash in the process. There he meets a number of fellow veterans, including a young amputee, Scott (Victor Oshin) and WWII RAF Fighter Arthur (John Standing). When they disembark, Arthur invites Bernard to stay in his accommodation. As the pair drink Arthur reveals a dark truth he buries underneath his afiable charm. Meanwhile, back in the nursing home, Rene lets the cat out of the bag, and the search for Bernard begins. As Bernard walks the beaches, he remembers his time during the war on the boats. He thinks back to the loss and senseless violence as well as to his youthful courtship of Rene.
For a romantic and comedic film about loving older people celebrating Britain’s victory in WWII; do not expect anything along the lines of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel in terms of tone or lightness. Rather this film examines Bernard’s existential dread albeit in a humorous way, as he approaches his final days. He’s using this trip to look back over the trauma of his earlier years and Caine delivers a wonderful job with the material, delivering a performance that’s sardonic, aching yet funny. Rene’s wit and warmth steals the show – The Great Escaper was Jackson’s last film, and she died in June 2023, nine months after filming finished.
What The Great Escaper does well is address ageism and the struggles of growing old, told through the physical stress and perspectives of our two main protagonists. This film casts light on the lived experience of two wonderfully realised characters, neither are perfect, both are well realised. There’s a softness and even a sensuality presented between them on screen, as well as a strong sense of agency, even as those around them infantalise them in some ways. Its a shame that in contrast to this, the secondary character choices and background development of this film does have a tendency to reach for the lowest hanging fruit. Although the message of the film is clear, the threads of the narrative don’t quite gel together in a way that progresses the story. The flashbacks merely rehash what director Oliver Parker, and writer William Ivory have already presented us in the rich subtext of the present day world.
Much like life, this film is a mixed bag of joy, trauma, celebration and grief, and worth a watch for Jackson’s mischief alone.
The Great Escaper is in cinemas from 6th October 2023.