25 May 2024
The Great Escaper read our film review

Film Review – The Great Escaper (2023)

The Great Escaper read our film review
He hit the headlines in 2014 as we celebrated the 70th anniversary of the D Day landings. Bernie Jordan was tailor-made for the tabloids, a veteran who exemplified the indefatigable spirit of his generation and who, when he missed out on an organized trip to the commemorations in Normandy, decided to get there under his own steam – once he’d slipped out of his residential home without anybody noticing.

Dubbed The Great Escaper – and giving the film based on his impromptu trip its title – Jordan had reached France on the ferry by the time staff at the home contacted the police and the hunt was on. And while he was paying his respects to fallen comrades, his face was all over the papers, TV news and the internet. At the age of nearly 90, he’d become a national hero, one that director Oliver Parker sets out to show had a much bigger story than the one that briefly caught the nation’s imagination.

We see Bernie’s (Michael Caine) lengthy marriage to Rene (the late Glenda Jackson) and their life together in the home, as well as some of the experiences which surface during his visit to a military cemetery. Played out in his memory, the wartime scenes are depicted well enough, but they’re taken to another level entirely when the camera closes in on Caine’s face and lets his eyes do all the work. It’s one of many moments where the two double Oscar winning leads turn an otherwise unremarkable film into something more memorable, simply through their acting. The Great Escaper, sadly, is Jackson’s final appearance on screen and Caine has been quoted as saying it’s his last film role: he came out of retirement to play the part, pointing out that he’s much the same age as Bernie was at the time – “a 90 year old coffin dodger”. The two give the story its driving force, its heart and its warmth and, as their swan songs, their performances are effortless class. If only the film lived up to them.

Admittedly, it has its heart in the right place, aiming to pay tribute to the courage of the war generation as well as trying to make WWII meaningful to a younger audience. Yet it never really hits either target, veering towards sentiment and often feeling superficial: an attempt at a storyline about contemporary PTSD is a wasted opportunity, fizzling out far too quickly. Surprisingly, however, the most moving sequence of the film doesn’t feature Caine and Jackson together and is one when silence speaks volumes. Bernie meets a group of German veterans and there’s a moment when he and one of them both realise they were on the same beach at the same time.

Despite wanting to appeal to a younger audience, The Great Escaper is a film with “grey market” written all over it. Anybody with a connection to the subject matter or who has followed the career of the two main stars will find it hard to resist – they’ll need to take a tissue or two, just in case. But its chances of attracting more recent generations are low, and not just because of the subject matter. Its treatment of the issues beneath Bernie Jordan’s story is simply too lightweight to encourage anybody to take a genuine interest in them. Without Caine and Jackson, the whole thing would sink without trace.

★★★

 

Drama | In UK cinemas, 6 October 2023 | Pathe | Certificate: 12A | Dir. Oliver Parker | Michael Caine, Glenda Jackson, John Standing, Danielle Vitalis, Will Fletcher, Laura Marcus, Victor Oshin.


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