Michael Caine and Glenda Jackson – in her final performance – lift this very slight tale of a D-Day veteran going to a 70th-anniversary event. Based on a true story, Caine plays WWII soldier Bernie Jordan, who lives in a care home with his wife Irene (Jackson) and has just missed out on an organised trip to France for the D-Day celebrations; at Irene’s insistence, though, he goes off under his own steam.
What follows is Caine’s cross-Channel journey, intercut with flashbacks: of Bernie and Irene when they met and fell in love before the former went off to war, and of the young Bernie and another soldier about to land tanks on the Normandy beaches. There are so many of these, in fact, that a plot twist is expected, but none comes. Caine meets John Standing’s RAF officer, nursing his own guilt and grief over bombing raids via stiff upper lip and alcohol. There’s also a cursory nod to PTSD, and soldiers of more recent wars, via Victor Oshin’s amputee and conflicted guide. Meanwhile, back home, Bernie’s escape gathers media interest and he becomes a minor star.
William Ivory’s script fluctuates from cosy sitcom to awkward diatribe, with director Oliver Parker often spelling out too much, but The Great Escaper is made immensely watchable by Caine and Jackson. Caine, in particular, manages to convey the terrors and waste of war in a look, rendering some of his more leaden, obvious dialogue obsolete: a scene where Caine meets up with old German soldiers needed little more than that face to make it work, and other scenes could easily have been filleted and flashbacks omitted.
So much acting history exists between Caine and Jackson that seeing them looking old and frail after their rich, vibrant past cannot fail to hit home. A film rescued by its central performances, The Great Escaper could have said more about war by saying less.
Dir: Oliver Parker (12A, 96 mins)
The Great Escaper is in cinemas from Fri 6 Oct
words KEIRON SELF