One Last Job: Our Review of ‘The Great Escaper’

Posted in Movies, Theatrical by - May 31, 2024
One Last Job: Our Review of ‘The Great Escaper’

In 2014, World War II veteran Bernard Jordan made international headlines.  He went missing from his care home, disappearing long enough to warrant a police report.  However, it was found that he was just answering another call of duty.  Unable to join an organised tour, the then 89-year-old made his own way from Hove, England to France in order to join commemorations for the 70th anniversary of D-Day.  He was dubbed The Great Escaper, and now his story inspires the film of the same name.

Bernard (Michael Caine) and his wife Irene (Glenda Jackson) live in a care home close to the sea.  Each morning, Bernard takes a stroll along the boardwalk (a lovely St. Leonards-on-Sea standing in for Hove.)  The younger cyclists often ignore his presence as they rudely bump into him, or jump his place in the queue as if he’s not even there.  He returns home to help care for his wife, amongst the nurses and aides that are in and out of their flat.  But lately, he’s been pulling out old photos and boxes, spurring on memories for both of them of their time during World War II.  It was a time that documented the start of their relationship, but also rife with tragedy.

Irene understands that Bernard feels a need to go to France to commemorate the 70th anniversary of D-Day, and encourages him to go even though he’s travelling on his own with no plans for accommodation and little money to spare.  She seems to suspect there is more to his motivation, and she would be right.  With his walker and a blue plastic bag his only possessions, Bernard watches as the white cliffs of Dover disappear from view on the deck of the ferry, and the shores of France appear.  It’s a place full of troubled memories for the veteran who starts seeing visions of his time in the Royal Navy.  On their own journeys, both Bernard and Irene will remember and reconcile their feelings from decades past.

Director Oliver Parker is lucky to have his two stars to buoy this sometimes slow paced drama, and he gives them the space to do what they do best.  The Great Escaper is two-time Oscar winner Glenda Jackson’s final role, sadly having passed away just months after wrapping filming.  This remarkable woman is simply superb as the spirited, funny Irene. She’s a magnetic force that had me waiting for her to return to the film’s focus every time it looked away.  This may also be Sir Michael Caine’s final on screen appearance, as the 90-year-old actor confirmed his retirement after the UK release of this film.  He can certainly be very proud if this is his last role, as he adds gravitas to a touching performance.

Jackson and Caine, reunited 47 years after they starred together in The Romantic Englishwoman, are truly what make this film work.  Movies such as this are always in danger of becoming overly sentimental, or sometimes inadvertently patronizing, but writer William Ivory tries to stray from this trap and in the end, each tear feels earned thanks in large part to the film’s acting.

There are some tonal shifts as The Great Escaper moves back to the 1940’s memories of Bernard and Irene, with mixed results.  Some of the sound transitions are startling, perhaps purposefully so, this is war after all.  But, with the very soft spoken scenes that surround them, the sudden appearance of gunfire and explosions sound particularly bombastic and I found myself reaching for the volume button more than once to either dampen the deluge or boost the dialogue.  Perhaps a theatrical viewing would fix this minor issue in an otherwise enjoyable film.

The Great Escaper is a salute to a generation that should be cherished and a memorial to those that sacrificed.  Yet, at its core, it is a love story, a romance 70 years long, between Bernard and Irene.  Their love managed to survive the war and anchored Bernard through his post-battle trauma, building a marriage that flourished amongst the little daily things they accomplished together.  They simply couldn’t imagine life without one another.  In fact, in real life Irene passed away just one week after Bernard.  The one thing they couldn’t escape was time.  But what a privilege to live a life full of love like that, to find fulfilling companionship.  The Great Escaper is an emotional and touching tribute to an incredible couple.

This post was written by
Hillary is a Toronto based writer, though her heart often lives in her former home of London, England. She has loved movies for as long as she can remember, though it was seeing Jurassic Park as a kid that really made it a passion. She has been writing about film since 2010 logging plenty of reviews and interviews since then, especially around festival season. She has previously covered the London Film Festival, TIFF (where she can often be found frantically running between venues) and most recently Sundance (from her couch). She is a member of the Online Association of Female Film Critics. When she’s not watching films or writing about them, she can be found at her day job as a veterinarian. Critic and vet is an odd combination, but it sure is a great conversation starter at an interview or festival!
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