A no-frills account of one man’s journey to honour his past
I don’t review films very often, but an opportunity to see The Great Escaper, with Michael Caine, who is always excellent value for money, and the final performance by the late, great Glenda Jackson? I’m there like a shot.
There are no spoilers in this article, because the film is based on a true story – that of Bernard Jordan, who, in 2014 made the headlines for ‘breaking out’ of his care home in Hove and heading out to a D-Day event in France on his own. The staff at his care home, The Pines, had failed to secure him a place on the Royal British Legion trip heading to Normandy for the 70th anniversary of the D-day landings. Bernard took part in Operation Overlord as a Royal Navy officer and when he couldn’t get there with the group, he just went on his own.
The care home, incidentally, have always been at pains to point out that he didn’t ‘escape’ – it’s not a prison. But there was a media frenzy for a while, a story that captured people’s hearts, and here is where the film comes in.
This film, despite – or perhaps because of – being a well-grounded and honest portrayal, is a huge heart-string-tugger. Aside from the story itself, which is emotive enough, there is the backdrop of flashbacks that build out both the relationship between Rene and Bernie, and also the horror of the D-Day landings. I spent a fair amount of time dabbing my eyes whilst watching, and my friend Jules sat next to me openly wailing.
Director Oliver Parker and writer William Ivory are at the screening…
…doing some interviews and a bit of a double act to introduce the film. Ivory (or Billy, as Oliver calls him), is gentle, writerly. Despite being nominated three times for BAFTAs, he gives off a feeling of not quite being able to believe how lucky he is. The self-deprecating thing is charming – he tells us how he when he was writing the Great Escaper he wanted the roles to be given proper due, but couldn’t believe that they’d landed Jackson and Caine, “two absolute titans. Older titans, but still immense.” He also points out that although the story of Bernard’s ‘escape’ is well-known, there are a lot of blanks he needed to fill in, aspects of the private story that nobody knew about. Bernard’s life, for example, or his relationship with his wife Irene (Rene).
Parker talked about the challenges of filming, and his connection with Brighton and Hove, although many of the scenes are shot around Worthing and other coastal locations. Only a local like what I am would notice though. And they both talk about Jackson with reverence. She died very shortly after filming ended, and they both know how lucky they were to get her. “Tell them the story, tell them the Glenda story,” says Billy, patting him. Parker laughs.
“So, Glenda is a kind of tour de force, a force of nature…
…and the first week was particularly heavy. We had to get all of her big scenes done, one after the other, heavy dialogue and schedule. It was an astonishing thing to do. And she was absolutely immaculate, word perfect. Hit everything like that.” He snaps his fingers in the air. “And I thought we’d never get through it, but we got through it. And we watched the young crew, most of whom are literally a quarter of her age, watching her turn into this ageing creature, kind of curled up a bit, you know, that’s her motif [in this film]. But BOY still firing. And we got to that last shot of that week, and they were all mesmerised by her. As I said cut, the crew burst into spontaneous applause. And Glenda, still in character all curled up, looked up from under her hooded eyes, and went “don’t be so fucking patronising.” I said to her I don’t think they were, and she went, “oh sorry darlings, sorry!”
The narrative is expertly threaded together – frankly this is a very simple story, but Ivory has done a good job of making more of it. Both Caine and Jackson give great performances, although I’d have liked to see more of them together. The banter between them is hugely watchable, the skills they both possess as actors fully in play. And they have chemistry. But as the story is very much about Bernard’s journey alone, this separation is to be expected.
Caine – as you would expect – cuts an imposing figure. Despite using a walking frame, he’s still a huge presence. He’s over six feet high and that voice is still there. Jules whispered to me “he still SOUNDS like Michael Caine,” about five minutes into the film, and she’s right, and somehow that’s reassuring. That both Caine and Jackson are absolutely brutally honest, and comfortable, playing old people (and being old people) makes them curiously vulnerable. But that’s only until they start talking. When we look at old people, we see old people, don’t we. But the flashbacks make a difference, seeing them as young lovers. It gives weight and humanity to their characters. We also get to understand why their marriage is so solid.
It’s an unflinching depiction of life in old age, something both Ivory and Parker were keen to point out.
There’s very little sentimentality in the portrayals of Bernie and Rene, and the film is better for it. Jackson’s family have said that her Rene is the closest they had ever seen her to her real-life self. Somehow watching that made it all the more fascinating.
John Standing – who is a mate of Caine’s – plays a sturdy part in all this as Arthur, a new comrade who befriends the bewildered Bernie whilst on the ferry crossing. I won’t say too much about this except that Standing’s performance is also a joy, and his backstory is heartbreaking. There is resolution for both Bernie and Arthur whilst in France, in scenes that caused me more eye-dabbing. The horror of war is present throughout the film; the futility and the trauma loom large.
There’s a huge moment in the film where Bernie and Arthur run into some German veterans on the ferry, who are also heading to Normandy to honour their own dead. The mutual respect and unspoken commentary here had me reaching for the tissues again. It’s incredibly touching.
The rest of the cast all turn out staunch performances – in all honesty, there is very little wrong with any of this film. And I should point out that although I did my fair share of eye-dabbing, there is also some gentle humour throughout. Even a couple of proper laugh out loud moments.
But despite a relatively short amount of time on screen, for me the show is stolen by Jackson. Wry and dry, she’s sarcastic whilst hunched over her lunch tray. But kind, generous with her energy. It’s a particularly poignant experience watching the film, knowing that she would only live a number of weeks after it wrapped, but you wouldn’t know. I too, was mesmerised by her.
The Great Escaper is in cinemas across the UK from 6 October
Sam is Silver’s founder and editor-in-chief. She’s largely responsible for organising all the things, but still finds time to do the odd bit of writing. Not enough though. Send help.
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