Friday, February 16, 2024

The Great Escaper




 The Great Escaper – movie. Release date: 7 March 2024 (Australia)
Media Contact: Sue Dayes

Reviewed by Frank McKone

Directed by Oliver Parker; Written by William Ivory; Produced by Robert Bernstein, Douglas Rae
Starring: Michael Caine, Glenda Jackson
Cinematography: Christopher Ross; Edited by Paul Tothill; Music by Craig Armstrong

Production companies:  Pathé; BBC Film; Ecosse Films; Film i Väst; Filmgate Films
Distributed by Warner Bros. Entertainment UK
Original release date: 6 October 2023 (United Kingdom)
Running time: 96 minutes

    Michael Caine as Bernard (Bernie) Jordan
        Will Fletcher as young Bernard Jordan
    Glenda Jackson as Irene (Rene) Jordan, Bernard's wife
        Laura Marcus as young Irene Jordan
    John Standing as Arthur; Jackie Clune as Judith, manager of the care home
    Danielle Vitalis as Adele, Brennan Reece as Martin – care home workers
    Wolf Kahler as Heinrich; Ian Conningham as LCT Commander Parker
    Elliott Norman as Douglas Bennett; Donald Sage Mackay as Nathan
    Carlyss Peer as Vicky; Isabella Domville as Susan Everard
    Joe Bone as Tim; Victor Oshin as Scott

I find myself thinking of The Great Escaper, with its quite simple storyline, as if it were a stage play.  The central set would be of the rather well-resourced room in a retirement home where Bernard Jordan, who was born on June 16, 1924, lived with his wife Irene (‘Reenie’).  In real life Bernard died at 90 in hospital on December 30, 2014, and Irene a week later at 88 on January 8, 2015.

The dates are especially significant because the story is about Bernie’s determination –  as a retired sailor who had been on duty that day – to attend the 70th Anniversary in France of the Invasion of Normandy – D-Day – on June 6, 1944.  This was a ceremonial event attended by Queen Elizabeth and Barack Obama, with travel and accommodation arranged by the returned soldiers.  Reenie is not well enough to go.  But the real issue is that Bernie forgot to book a place in time.  What will he do?  Make his own way across, of course; especially to visit one of the 5000 graves in the Bayeux War Cemetery.

Approaching 90, needing a walking stick, but otherwise apparently in reasonable health, he leaves for a morning walk on the beach (at Hove, East Sussex, where he was born and died).  

On stage there would be scenes such as when Bernie meets other old soldiers like Arthur and even a German pilot, Heinrich, who may well have shot at Bernie’s landing craft on the day, on the forestage, while Reenie remains in their room dealing with the retirement home staff and her own health scares.  Then there would be projected scenes on screen of when they were young, meeting up at a wartime dance and of what happened on the landing craft, until the final scene at that huge war cemetery.

There are 3000 such cemeteries cared for by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission commemorating over 575,000 men and women in France.  “What a waste!” says Bernie.

On stage with the live actors communicating directly with the audience, I can imagine the depth and strength of feeling we would experience.

But there is an awful irony in watching this film.  Michael Caine turned 90 in March, 2023.  Glenda Jackson died aged 87 in June.  Filming had been planned for June 2021; finally got underway in September 2022; and “Parker screened the finished film for Caine and Jackson a few weeks before the latter's death on 15 June 2023.”

I feel somewhat hesitant to criticise the film in the circumstances, but it doesn’t achieve the dramatic power I imagine as live theatre.  This is not to do with the quality of the acting.  

Perhaps the problem is that the story of Bernard Jordan is real, and appears on film too much like a documentary, a documenting of the events.  But this movie is a fictional recreation based on the true story.  At the same when we watch any film we feel we are seeing reality.

Ivory, as the writer, uses flashbacks to represent actual memories and and their emotional impact, but when filmed, the younger versions of Bernie and Reenie don’t look enough like or their voices don’t have the same accents or manners of speaking as the Bernard and Irene we see in old age.  So the illusion of theatre is broken.  But maybe my reaction was influenced by my being an 83-year-old one-time Cockney.

The flashbacks to the scenes on the landing craft certainly created the horrifying effects of being under fire from the German aircraft, showing what happened to the tank, and the soldier Bernie persuaded to drive it out into danger.  But it was filmed for us as observers, instead of being a memory from within Bernie’s viewpoint.  

Caine and Jackson created their personal relationship very well, so that we (as we would have in a play) easily found ourselves identifying with each of them and feeling the bond between them.  But other scenes, such as Bernie’s meeting up with the Germans, being introduced by a ‘French’ hotel manager who didn’t sound like a real native French speaker, nor like a Frenchman trying to speak German, just didn’t seem real.  On stage it might even have been funny, rather than creating the tension that was likely if it had been real – nor did it create the other sense of recognition between fighters on such opposite sides, and the feelings that made Bernie and Arthur give Heinrich their tickets to the memorial function.

I certainly, though, could recognise the feeling of satisfaction that Bernie achieved when leaving his memento at the grave in Bayeux, after my wife and I had ourselves searched for her grandfather’s grave in Normandy, where he died in 1918, and where we saw the respect with which the local people keep up the maintenance of all those cemeteries.  

So though the film is made with good intentions, and raises important issues about warfare and its glorification, the writing and directing is inconsistent as a 90-minute drama.  

Yet it stands as a recognition of Glenda Jackson and Michael Caine’s acting capabilities, even their determination – like that of both Irene and Bernard Jordan – to go where he knew he must go, despite old age and the expectations of others.