Michael Caine shines in The Great Escaper – an emotional and personal true story about a veteran breaking out of his care home for the 70th anniversary of D-Day. Our review:
Based on the true story of World War II veteran Bernard Jordan’s journey to France for the 70th anniversary of the D-Day Landings, The Great Escaper was always going to be an emotional film. What’s truly striking about it, though, is its quiet intensity. So much of this film is fuelled by the incredible performances of Sir Michael Caine, as Jordan, the late Glenda Jackson as his wife Irene, and John Standing as a fellow veteran Jordan meets on his journey. The movie’s emotion comes largely from the small changes in expression, the haunted looks, and everyone in the cast conveys the biggest amount of feeling through the smallest of gestures.
Jordan, who was 89 years old when he ‘escaped’ his care home to make the journey to France, became somewhat of a news sensation at the time. The Great Escaper, though, positions itself as taking the puff pieces that were written about Jordan’s trip and telling the ‘real’ story behind them – a story about PTSD, the horrors of war, and of the toll of ageing. Amongst that, though, is also the more light-hearted tale of Bernard’s long marriage to his wife.
Caine inhabits the role incredibly well, although William Ivory’s screenplay also allows his own personality to shine through. As we become acquainted with Bernard through his daily walks along the sea front, where he indulges in a cup of tea with four sugars, Caine gets to fire off some excellent ‘bloodys’ and ‘blimeys’ – and, on one occasion, something a little bit stronger.
The character is Bernard Jordan, but, especially with Caine so close in age to the person he plays, it’s easy to see Caine also a bit as himself. The result is that his version of Bernard is so easily likeable. Glenda Jackson’s Irene, who initially berates Bernard for going through all of his old wartime photos, is a more sharp-tongued character. But when Bernard expresses a need to head to France for the D-Day anniversary celebrations, she sees how much the trip means to him. Irene isn’t quite as nimble as Bernard, and remains at the care home as he departs for France.
Jackson’s endearing no-nonsense demeanour is a constant source of levity as the film flits between Bernard and Irene, and between its themes of war and romance. There are some lovely sepia-toned flashbacks to when the couple were younger and falling in love, and it provides some rare smiles in a film that can be quite sombre. The young actors – Will Fletcher and Laura Marcus – don’t get an awful lot to do, but Fletcher manages to emulate Caine’s distinctive accent well enough.
In the present day, Bernard embarks on his journey, and the film does work to draw attention to how great a journey it is for the aged veterans. At one point, we seemingly cut from outside the Dover ferry terminal to Caine on the top deck of the boat – only for the shot to move further out and reveal it’s a painted wall. He hasn’t reached the ferry yet. As much as The Great Escaper wants us to see the veteran’s harsh reality and the toll of age, it also acknowledges the scale of what Bernard manages to achieve.
On his trip, Bernard meets Arthur (John Standing), a former RAF pilot, and the scenes between the two are often devastating. It’s clear that neither of them have particularly recovered from what they’ve experienced. Bernard’s PTSD is conveyed through dark and grainy flashbacks, where the camera shakes and remains just slightly out of focus as it follows Bernard and his comrades in close up. They’re effective scenes, but somehow not as effective as Bernard and Arthur simply talking about how their lives have been affected.
The Great Escaper often feels like it’s simply happy to observe these conversations, and it proves to be a simple but effective approach. Caine is the emotional core of this film, and director Oliver Parker seemingly knows it. Rarely does the camera stray away from his face, and it hones in on an emotional, powerful performance as Bernard seeks to face his own demons and honour his fallen comrades.
The Great Escaper is in cinemas on 6th October.
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