The two British icons bring a huge amount of joy to the heartwarming true story of Bernard Jordan, the 89-year-old veteran who snuck off to attend the 70th anniversary of D-day
By Peter Bradshaw
Michael Caine and the late Glenda Jackson bring their A games to this true-life heartwarmer about the 89-year-old second world war Royal Navy veteran Bernard Jordan, who in 2014 jauntily sneaked out of his seaside care home (where he lived with his wife Irene) on a secret mission to get aboard a cross-channel ferry and attend the 70th anniversary celebrations of the D-day landings in Normandy — having failed to get included on an official group excursion. He was dubbed “the great escaper” in the press although then, as now, the care home insisted that there was no question of forbidding Bernard from going, so there was no escape as such. Facetiously representing them as busybody elf ’n’ safety camp commandants – tempting though this might have been – could have landed the film in legal hot water.
Caine is Jordan, of course, bringing plenty of droll and lugubrious spark to the role, shuffling up and down the seafront, grumpily denouncing the trendy cyclists almost running him over on the pavement as “tossers” and letting the air out of their tyres. But he is arguably upstaged by Jackson as Irene, or Rene, who is sarky and sardonic to everyone, including her care worker Adele (an excellent performance from Danielle Vitalis).
She gets laughs in a way Caine’s character doesn’t, or not as much. Rene has to cover up for Bernard; she is, after all, in on his plan, and tells the nurses and managers that her absent husband is just out on a long early walk, giving Bernard enough time to get on the ferry before the alarm is raised.
There’s a huge amount to enjoy from these legendary performers: Caine and Jackson are a great double-act, despite being apart for much of the film, and the film imagines an interesting and poignant rapport between Bernard and an elderly ex-RAF officer on the ferry, sympathetically played by John Standing, who is heading for Normandy while crucified by a secret guilt. Caine has a bold flash of rage by the official graves at all the criminal waste of lives created by war.
Set against this, the flashback scenes of the young Rene and Bernard are less strong and a flaw in the film is that it somehow can’t help drifting towards an officially sanctioned sentimentality and even stateliness, rather like the BBC news coverage of the D-day celebrations of which we see a glimpse. It’s a kind of piety which the (excellent) lead performances are always working against. I’m inclined to wonder how many movie versions of Captain Sir Tom Moore and his legendary lockdown charity walk were once in development in the same vein, with the same present day/wartime flashback structure, but which now have had to be abandoned or radically reimagined.
Well, Caine and Jackson and their ineffable class give this film some real grit: it’s a wonderful last hurrah for Jackson and there is something moving and even awe-inspiring in seeing these two British icons together.