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BIF&ST 2024

Review: The Great Escaper


- Oliver Parker directs a film for wider audiences about memories of war, underpinned by a well-layered screenplay and starring two film giants, Michael Caine and Glenda Jackson

Review: The Great Escaper
Michael Caine in The Great Escaper

An old man with an uncertain past plunges his walking stick into the wet sand and walks towards the sea. He seems alone, but other men subsequently appear around him, their gaze similarly fixed upon the horizon, the same military decorations pinned to their jackets and the same images tearing through their minds. It’s 2014 and the 70th anniversary of the Normandy landings. Of the many veterans of that military endeavour – those who made it through that 6th of June in 1944 and are here to tell the story today – the man with the walking stick, Bernie Jordan, has become a star of TV news having achieved another great feat: leaving England on his own at 90 years of age, armed with nothing but a Zimmer frame, in order to travel to the D-Day beach in France and commemorate his fallen comrades… A “great escape” which has made news around the world and which has catapulted Bernie onto the front pages of all the newspapers.

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Based on a true story, The Great Escaper by Oliver Parker reconstructs the journey embarked upon by this elderly Second World War soldier, grappling with ghosts and the guilt he feels for his role in the conflict. It also speaks of the extraordinary love story between Bernie and his wife René, which began seventy years earlier beneath the bombs: a profound love which is one of the few things that can truly keep you alive after the traumas of war. And it’s this connection he shares with his elderly and tenacious spouse, who awaits Bernie’s return in the nursing home they both live in, which proves crucial to the success of his latest “mission” in Normandy.

Screened in Bif&st’s International Premieres line-up, The Great Escaper is a film for wider audiences, underpinned by a well-layered and non-rhetorical screenplay penned by William Ivory. But it’s first and foremost a movie carried by an exceptional pair of actors who are none other than film giants Michael Caine and Glenda Jackson (playing Bernie and René), who enchant, amaze and move us. The last time they worked together was almost 50 years ago in The Romantic Englishwoman, and this will be Jackson’s last appearance on the big screen (following her passing in June of last year) and no doubt Caine’s too, given that he’s now 91 years old and announced his definitive retirement from films after making this movie. Parker is empathic in his depiction of them, framing them in splendid close-ups which capture each and every line and expression on their faces.

We also see their characters back when they were youngsters, played by Will Fletcher and Laura Marcus, by way of several flashbacks to when they were beautiful, full of passion and cowering under the bombs. These same flashbacks serve to gradually piece together the puzzle of the trauma Bernie experienced during the landings, shedding light on the reason for this stubborn journey he’s making seventy years later. “Some make it through the war but no-one makes it through unscathed”, he warns. Tackling post-traumatic stress disorder from various angles in a profoundly human fashion, Parker and Ivory rework a sensational news story and a subject which might otherwise have felt overegged, turning it into an incredibly moving and insightful, well-balanced and heartfelt work.

The Great Escaper is produced in the UK by Ecosse Films and BBC Film, in co-production with Sweden’s Film i Väst. International sales are entrusted to Pathé, while the film is set for distribution in Italy in June, via Lucky Red.

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(Translated from Italian)

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