In her last film, Glenda Jackson is absolutely magnificent as the wife of Bernard Jordan (Michael Caine), the man who escaped his care home to join the 70th anniversary of D-Day commemoration
The Great Escaper (PG)
Released on October 6th
Next year will be the 80th anniversary of D-Day – the last chance for veterans, now all in their late 90s or older to make the pilgrimage to Normandy en masse.
And so, too, with immaculate, mournful timing, this marvellous film about D-Day veterans is the last outing for the great Glenda Jackson, who was 87 when she died in June.
She is absolutely magnificent as Irene Jordan, the wife of Bernard Jordan (Michael Caine). The film is based on the true story of Jordan, a WWII Royal Navy veteran. In 2014, on the 70th anniversary of D-Day, he absconded from his care home in Hove to attend the commemoration events in Normandy. 89 at the time, Jordan died shortly after, at 90.
Michael Caine, also 90, is pitch perfect for his part, too – not least because he saw active service in the Korean War in the Royal Fusiliers 70 years ago.
Caine – looking frail and thin – is so moving at portraying the indignities of old age and the urge to rage against the dying of the light.
Life in the Jordans’ nursing home is well-captured by director Oliver Parker and writer William Ivory: the endless pills, the functional, semi-medical furniture, the stumbling on sticks and the slow progress in wheelchairs.
Michael Caine has been famous for so long – Zulu came out in 1964 – that it’s easy to forget what a gifted actor he is. He underplays everything – he is very still – and so, when he does break into a smile or suddenly turn menacing, he multiplies the impact.
And that voice has been imitated so much that you forget how original – yet non-fake – it is. At one point, he’s offered a German chocolate bar and says, ‘If you wanna flog chocolate bars, don’t start a bloody World War.’ Wonderful shades of The Italian Job (1969) and ‘You’re only supposed to blow the bloody doors off.’
Just as Caine is returning to his south London, Cockney youth, Glenda Jackson’s voice returns to her Birkenhead roots. Alternately grumpy and charming, she is sublime – straight out of the Alan Bennett School of Northern Battleaxes. And how unvain she is, gap-toothed, all skin and bone, with the camera, zooming in on ultra close-up, catching every wrinkle in high definition. Michael Caine, too, is vanity-free, content to have his ageing body filmed in a vest.
There is the odd clichéd moment, not least in the flashbacks to the Jordans’ 1940s courtship and the D-Day horrors inflicted on Bernard Jordan. The workmanlike if perfectly adequate performances of the young Bernard (Will Fletcher) and young Irene (Laura Marcus) just heighten the greatness of Michael Caine and Glenda Jackson.
John Standing, 90 next year, is excellent, too, as a haunted D-Day veteran officer, whose alcoholism has stopped him visiting the Bayeux grave of his brother – killed in Normandy – for 70 years.
At one moment, Standing quotes from 'At the British War Cemetery, Bayeux’, by the poet Charles Causley (1917-2003), himself a Royal Navy veteran of WWII:
‘I walked where, in their talking graves
And shirts of earth, five thousand lay.’
A fine elegy to the war dead – as this fine film is a just tribute to the rare talents of Michael Caine and the late Glenda Jackson.