The Great Escaper (2023, dir. Oliver Parker)

by | Oct 10, 2023

Certificate: 12A

Running Time: 96 mins

UK Distributor: Pathé UK

UK Release Date: 6 October 2023

WHO’S IN THE GREAT ESCAPER?

Michael Caine, Glenda Jackson, John Standing, Danielle Vitalis, Donald Sage Mackie, Ian Conningham, Isabella Domville, Joe Bone, Victor Oshin, Will Fletcher, Laura Marcus

WHO’S BEHIND THE CAMERA?

Oliver Parker (director), William Ivory (writer), Robert Bernstein and Douglas Rae (producers), Craig Armstrong (composer), Christopher Ross (cinematographer), Paul Tothill (editor)

WHAT’S IT ABOUT?

An elderly war veteran (Caine) escapes his care home to revisit the beaches of Normandy…

WHAT ARE MY THOUGHTS ON THE GREAT ESCAPER?

Earlier this year, a film named Allelujah quietly came and went from UK screens, but instead of the bright and cheery celebration of the NHS and its several elderly patients that was promised in the trailer, audiences ended up being rather mortified by its fundamental lack of empathy or subtlety, not to mention a horrifying twist that completely torpedoed any and all good intentions it might otherwise have had.

It seems that we’re now getting The Great Escaper as some sort of apology from Allelujah’s UK distributors Pathé and Warner Bros, because here is a film that is much more of a rousing and heartfelt celebration of the Greatest Generation (not so much the NHS, though, which is pretty much sidelined here) that actually respects not just its elderly leads, as well as the characters they play, but the underlying trauma and emotion that some of them carry well into their twilight years. Because of that, you can expect a surprising number of lumps to form in your throat, even when it’s clear that the film isn’t working quite as well as it does in other parts.

Set in 2014, with the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings fast approaching, we meet 90-year-old Royal Navy veteran Bernard Jordan (Michael Caine), who lives in a retirement home with his wife Rene (Glenda Jackson), as he finds out that he hasn’t been able to secure a place at the upcoming celebration in Normandy. Rene, however, convinces him to go anyway, and so Bernard manages to escape from the home and make his way to a ferry taking him across the Channel, where he meets and befriends some of his fellow war-horses, including the troubled but friendly RAF veteran Arthur (John Standing), and undertakes a rather personal mission to a nearby cemetery. Meanwhile, Rene and the staff at the care home watch as Bernard’s journey becomes a media sensation, wherein he is dubbed “The Great Escaper”, while Rene reminisces about her long-standing relationship with her now-famous husband.

As you might expect with a film like this, one that’s certainly geared towards an older crowd who might not be as alert as they once used to be, The Great Escaper can be sporadic in its focus. Scenes of Michael Caine’s Bernard on his noble journey and facing the terrors of his past can be swiftly interrupted by Glenda Jackson’s Rene – in what turned out to be the actor’s last film role after her passing earlier this year – being lively and sweet with her carers back at the retirement home.

Certain supporting characters, like a younger war veteran who’s clearly got some PTSD to work through, come and go at random intervals, while flashbacks to Bernard and Rene’s wartime romance tend to go on for longer than they perhaps need to. The film also takes an odd tonal leap towards the end when Bernard experiences the fame he’s unexpectedly accumulated, when the film suddenly turns into a cheery and lively screwball comedy, mere moments after a gut-wrenching scene in a war cemetery.

While the film doesn’t exactly find its footing in terms of structure or tone, it does manage to make up for that with plenty of scenes that are genuinely moving, and respectfully executed by the filmmakers and especially the actors. Director Oliver Parker, in a radical step away from the likes of his terrible Dad’s Army movie and the two St. Trinian’s films, allows certain moments all the time they need to generate the exact amount of emotional resonance that is required, such as when Bernard encounters a group of German soldiers drinking together in a pub, or later when he tearfully expresses guilt and regret for an incident during the actual D-Day landings.

On top of that, Michael Caine and Glenda Jackson are both terrific in this movie, giving performances that easily earn empathy without once feeling condescending, and display a wide range of emotional resonance that proves why both of them are double Oscar-winners. You really do fall in love with this couple, not just because they are very likeable, but also due to the fact that you can see in these two characters a deep sense of commitment and adoration that will last long after both have passed.  

From a slightly more personal standpoint, The Great Escaper had me thinking a lot about my own grandparents, and how they had an equally unbreakable connection right up to their final days, which did leave me more choked up than I’d care to admit. Something about the way that they interact with other people, especially Glenda Jackson as she expresses constant delight at the small things around her, really felt poignant to me, as though I was seeing my grandmother (whom I was very close with before she passed last year) being portrayed on the screen and having her eternal goodness and chipper attitude captured perfectly.

Structurally, it doesn’t entirely function, but as an unexpectedly emotional and respectful drama featuring a pair of terrific turns by two legendary actors, The Great Escaper is a formidable accomplishment – and a satisfying enough apology for Allelujah.

SO, TO SUM UP…

The Great Escaper is a genuinely moving drama that respectfully captures the emotional burdens of the Greatest Generation and features two excellent performances by Michael Caine and the late Glenda Jackson, but its sporadic focus and odd tonal shifts do make it slightly uneven in places.

Three out of five stars

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