In their final film performances, Michael Caine and Glenda Jackson play off each other wonderfully in a fine biographical drama based on the true story of war veteran Bernie and his wife Rene Jordan, respectively.

Direction: Oliver Parker
Screenplay: William Ivory
Cast: Michael Caine, Glenda Jackson
Length: 96 minutes
Rating: 12A

Almost 10 years ago now, the British Royal Navy Second World War veteran Bernie Jordan (Michael Caine), approaching his tenth decade, set off from his nursing home in Britain for the 70th anniversary D-Day commemorations in France in secret. Encouraged by his wife Rene (Glenda Jackson) to travel to the anniversary ceremony solo, Jordan’s supposed disappearance causes a headache for the nursing home staff amidst a growing media presence in what has become a white-hot human-interest story that catches all off guard.

 

Meanwhile, Jordan befriends fellow British veterans divergent in age and race en route to France as well as Germans, representative of those he fought against during World War II. His return to the beach and cemetery of his fallen comrades proves to be as much a challenge psychologically as well as physically, but, ultimately, presents an opportunity for closure. His abrasive flashbacks to a war-torn landscape contrast noticeably, in pace and tone, with those that come to Rene, which illustrate their blossoming romance.

Michael Caine and Glenda Jackson in The Great Escaper (2023) – Photo by ROB YOUNGSON – © ROB YOUNGSON – IMDb

Exquisitely filmed and warmly scored, ‘The Great Escaper’ is a tale of two halves, set in Britain and France, of poignancy and hopefulness, from the perspectives of Bernie and Rene who spend most of the film apart. Bernie may have travelled to France by himself, but Rene is equally adventurous in her own way, forming closer bonds and bantering with even the most reluctant of nursing home staff. What could easily have become a depressing narrative has been sidestepped in favour of good humour; luckily, Bernie and Rene still possess sharp minds even if their health and memory may not be as strong.

 

Even though the fish supper she tucks into looks great, a sense of fun, however necessary, doesn’t overpower the spirit of the film to become one of pure saccharine simplicity. We are, after all, in the winter of our leading characters’ (and actors’) lives. As such, the script would be remiss (and acting quite hollow) if this fact, while bleak, was elided. It isn’t and, thus, an air of bittersweetness surround Bernie and Rene, both together and apart. As they themselves acknowledge, they may be living on borrowed time, but what a time they’re having. Old age on film can, treated sensitively, produce alternative results to a formulaic death sentence; politely put, this is bleak and unattractive, intelligently.

Michael Caine and Glenda Jackson in The Great Escaper (2023) – IMDb

World War Britain is an interesting era for us to keep returning to on film and television, especially from our perspective. In a time of political and economic decline, was wartime (including the Cold War) really Britain’s last period success on the world stage? Well, yes and no. First and Second World War Remembrances (extending to cinema) give creatives the opportunity to remind succeeding generations of the sacrifice made by those preceding. Much like the D-Day commemorations themselves, the original broadcast footage to which this film cuts back and forth from seamlessly, ‘The Great Escaper’ also presents us with a positive view of life after service, that there is one, namely, without negating its obvious traumatic memory; alcoholism is the main affliction for the veterans Bernie befriends in modern day France as a portal of escape from shock only they will know.

 

“The world is always more palatable when seen through a glass,” Bernie observes, pointedly, which is why he feels compelled to make the journey. Ironically, your critic is very much aware of his privilege in viewing Bernard ‘Bernie’ Jordan’s true experience in service ‘through a glass’ through the medium of this film – currently under review from the comfort of a press screening – which is, of course, ‘always more palatable.’

Michael Caine and Glenda Jackson in The Great Escaper (2023) – IMDb

In a similar homespun fashion to the relationship built between Jim Broadbent and Helen Mirren as a married couple in the 2020 film ‘The Duke’, Caine and Jackson provide ‘The Great Escaper’ with its spark and wit; most importantly, they have agency despite their age. Reuniting on the big screen for the first time since ‘The Romantic Englishwoman’ nearly five decades ago, Caine and Jackson have amassed four Oscars, four BAFTAs and four Golden Globes between them. Rest assured; this film concludes these glittering careers on the high notes of subtle performances and undiluted admiration.

 

“Nine o’clock?! Who goes to bed at nine o’clock?! Only the randy and the infirm,” Rene exclaims, exasperated. We hear you sister, we hear you.

 

 

‘The Great Escapers’ is in cinemas now:

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