The Great Escaper

M, 96 minutes

Three Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

This affectionate tribute to two great names of the screen is a gentle and dignified finale that will leave few dry-eyed who have followed their long careers. The film’s tone, peppered with moments when we assume the veteran actors are being true to themselves, suits them both really well.

Both Michael Caine and the late Glenda Jackson were proud working-class actors who did not find the need to transform themselves and their accents to escalate their careers. They did it by being their earthy, down-to-earth selves. Jackson died last year, after a brief illness. Caine, now 90, worries he may not make it to lunch.

A cut-glass enunciated disguise in performance was an irrelevance. Caine who always looks like he is up for mischief, kept his Cockney accent where possible, believing that he would be a good role model for young aspiring actors who weren’t born into privilege. No doubt he was.

A gentle and dignified finale that suits both of them really well

Jackson was a brilliant, fearless actor who played kings and queens from Lear to Elizabeth before she quit stage and screen to enter the UK Parliament as a Labour MP. The politics of both actors took sharply different directions, but they seem to have stayed true to their working-class roots.

In another sense entirely, The Great Escaper, directed by Oliver Parker from a screenplay by William Ivory, is a tribute to the brave Allied veterans of WWII who fought to reclaim continental Europe from Nazism. It is loosely based on the true story of an 89-year-old Royal Navy veteran, Bernard Jordan, who had inadvertently missed his chance of joining in the D-Day celebrations in 2014, but the self-described ‘coffin-dodger’ got himself there anyway. It was the 70th anniversary of the landings in Normandy before the push into France.

At least Bernie wasn’t so very far away. Just across the Channel, where he and his wife Irene (Jackson) lived in an old folks home near the sea, where they could enjoy a spin on the seafront as Bernie pushed her along the promenade in a wheelchair. In another scene, Caine himself uses a walker. It was brave of them both to take part in this, when every frailty is writ large on the big screen.

The Great Escaper is also a prompt to us to have another look at the films they are famous for.

Caine has played many kinds of roles, including Batman’s butler, over his career. Here he is an aging retiree who kisses his wife Rene goodbye before slipping out of his nursing home, to catch the bus to Portsmouth to board a ferry for the French coast.

This is of course Bernie’s story, following him to France where he teams up with a former RAF pilot who also has his demons to allay. All the scenes, including those of Bernie with other veterans in France, were shot in the UK during covid.

Michael Caine and Glenda Jackson were last seen together in the mid-1970s as an ill-matched couple in The Romantic Englishwoman. A contrast to them here as elderly married couple who fell in love during wartime and, still in love, have stayed the course. There are flashbacks the film didn’t really need, to the pair as a young couple, played by Laura Marcus and Will Fletcher, bathed in a honeyed, romantic glow.

It could so easily have slipped into British telly drama but the moment Caine and Jackson appear, all that is sent packing

Now they are in a retirement care in Hove, next door to Brighton on England’s south coast. If the kindly concern of the nursing home staff is a bit patronising from time-to-time, the moment Caine and Jackson appear in the frame, all that is sent packing. The film could so easily have slipped into a British telly drama at any point, despite a sweet performance from Danielle Vitalis as the young nurse Adele who befriends Rene, and this is its weakness.

Caine and Jackson won’t allow that to happen, and they are lovely together. Shuffling around, looking out for each other, being kind and loving in their salty, no-nonsense ways. Their promenade along the seafront affords them relaxation time alone together, even when a group of aggressive cyclists tries to run them off their route. This behaviour prompts Bernie to let down a few tyres, and we are absolutely with him there.

First published in the Canberra Times on 8 March 2024.  Also published on Rotten Tomatoes