D-Day’s 70th anniversary commemorations were attended by a host of the great and good: Barack Obama, Queen Elizabeth, François Hollande. You name it, if they were powerful they were probably there, in 2014, to remember the fallen of the Normandy invasion.
But all that thunder ended up stolen by an 89-year-old bloke from Sussex. Bernard Jordan, a Royal Navy veteran of D-Day, ‘escaped’ from his retirement home, made his way to Normandy with a few bits in a plastic bag and found himself on the front pages of newspapers around the world. A folk hero and war hero all in one, slightly cranky package.
Even played by a wonderful Michael Caine with weary grit and loads of heart, Bernard’s journey might have made for the kind of soapy dramatisation of which British cinema is overfond. But The Great Escaper transcends the headline-friendly fairy tale to paint a genuinely moving portrait of an enduring love affair between Bernard and his wife, Irene (Glenda Jackson), that also touches on mortality, memory, trauma, and unexpectedly, Bernard’s enjoyably visceral hatred of cyclists.
With Jackson and Caine on this form, it’s a total heartbreaker
Made in Dagenham screenwriter William Ivory’s script offers regular glimpses of the pair in their wartime years (played by Will Fletcher and Laura Marcus), young lovers torn apart when he’s whisked away to serve on a landing craft for the D-Day landings. The flashbacks are never overdone, working nicely to show how much life Bernard and Irene have lived together.
Director Oliver Parker (Dad’s Army) mostly lets his two stars bring their combined 125 years acting experience to bear. Jackson is a joy as an octogenarian with the energy of a teenager, having a blast throwing first the staff of their retirement home and then the police off the scent.
It could have a lot of sentimental mush, but with Jackson and Caine on this form, it’s a total heartbreaker.
In UK cinemas now.