thu 13/06/2024

The Great Escaper review - Glenda Jackson takes her final bow | reviews, news & interviews

The Great Escaper review - Glenda Jackson takes her final bow

The Great Escaper review - Glenda Jackson takes her final bow

Old age is not for sissies: indomitable performances by Michael Caine, Glenda Jackson and John Standing

The redoubtable Ms Jackson as Irene Jordan

This wasn’t a film to go and see with my 94-year-old father and hope I’d come out with my critical faculties intact and my handkerchief dry. The Great Escaper is an old fashioned, old school weepie about ageing, guilt and the horrors of war. 

 Unfortunately, it’s not quite as well written or directed as its stars deserved. Michael Caine and Glenda Jackson have had better scripts in their long careers, but they both do a magnificent job with what they’ve been given and tears will flow.

The Great Escaper is based on the story of Bernard/Bernie Jordan (Michael Caine below centre), a World War Two navy veteran who decided on the 70th anniversary of D-Day, back in 2014, that he’d take himself out of the seaside care home where he was living with his wife Irene (Glenda Jackson in her last screen role). 

The Queen and Barack Obama were going to be on the Normandy beaches for commemoration services and to honour the survivors, but Jordan was too late to join an organised veterans’ trip and was going to have to watch it on the TV. Instead he went AWOL from the care home, independently caught a ferry across the Channel and triggered a missing person’s search that made newspaper headlines and brought out the TV cameras. 

Bernie Jordan wasn’t exactly a prisoner of the care home, or quite as maverick as the media liked to make out – Irene knew all along where her husband was headed. But it made for a snappy hashtag for social media – the great escaper – and led to the eponymous film.  

Woven into the 2014 story are flashbacks to the war. We see a young Bernie (Will Fletcher) part of a battalion launching tanks onto Sword beach and facing the storm of enemy fire. He’d suffered ever since from nightmares remembering the young men who were with him who didn’t make it home.  

On the ferry over to Normandy, Bernie is taken under the wing of Arthur (John Standing above left), an air force veteran with his own demons about whom he may have inadvertently killed when the RAF bombed Caen. Together they make the journey to the British cemetery at Bayeux, a pilgrimage they’d never been able to face before and exorcise their ghosts. 

Shot entirely in the UK to get round covid restrictions and spare the older actors from the rigours of overseas travel, The Great Escaper is a little unconvincing when it tries to weave together TV archive from 2014 of the actual D-Day commemorations and the onscreen drama. There are some side characters who are never fully fleshed out – a traumatised Helmand veteran and a put-upon carer at the home. Their roles feel a little token, as if the film-makers felt they had to somehow appeal to a younger audience by creating these characters

The reconstructions of Irene and Bernie’s wartime romance are retro film-making by the numbers, drained colour image processing with swing music on the soundtrack. Laura Marcus plays the young Irene and although she doesn't look like the young Glenda Jackson, her look is similarly striking. Fletcher is less convincing as the younger Bernie/Michael Caine. 

The film is not all D-Day nostalgia and slightly clunky reconstructions. There are some lovely scenes with Glenda Jackson as the frail but feisty Irene, gently teasing the staff at the care home and railing against the tediousness of old age. In one scene, irked by how early supper is served in order to get the residents tucked up, she comes out with the line: “Who goes to bed at 9 o’clock? Only the randy and the infirm!”  It’s a flash of the fierce spirit that made Jackson a great actor in her day and makes her performance here, at 87-years old, battling the indignities and dependencies that come to us all, an outstanding last appearance.  

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