It feels emblematic of the state of things that the traditional early-autumn release slot of the Little Britfilm That Could - providing back-to-school sanctuary for such well-upholstered yet vaguely pointed history lessons as The Queen and Philomena - should this year be occupied by a film trading exclusively in nostalgia. The Great Escaper is nostalgia x nostalgia, perhaps even nostalgia x nostalgia x nostalgia, as if this were a formula that could be maximised for box-office gain. (Since retirees are the one group in Britain with a state-protected income, maybe so.) The nostalgia looms up at us on three fronts: it's nostalgia for the triumphs and sacrifices of WW2, which you suspect Britain and British cinema is never going to get over; it's also residual fondness for a pair of veteran performers who for one reason or another, retirement or death, are making their final appearances on the big screen after long, stellar careers; there may even be an element of nostalgia for that pre-Brexit moment when there was still room on the nightly news and the front page of the Daily Mail for a feelgood story with a relatively happy ending. Veteran film and TV scribe William Ivory (Common as Muck; Made in Dagenham) has handed director Oliver Parker (St. Trinian's, Dad's Army) a dramatised retelling of the tale of Bernard "Bernie" Jordan (Michael Caine), the octogenarian ex-Navy man who, in 2014, left behind his Hove retirement home and loving wife Irene (Glenda Jackson) so as to make his own way to the D-Day 70 commemorations in Normandy. As the film has it, Jordan achieved this armed only with a battery-powered walking frame, two wristwatches and some of that old Dunkirk spirit - i.e. much the same combination of pluck and modest technological resources that has been getting British films over the line since the days of In Which We Serve.
What's surprising and sort of interesting about the result is that this is far from the sunny against-the-odds romp promised by that punning title. (More WW2 nostalgia there, but it was also the hashtag used by Sussex Police while relating this benign incident.) The Great Escaper is as grey to look at as mortuary flesh, and as broadly as melancholy an experience as spending time in any underfunded coastal town during the off-season. Ivory and Parker's true subject isn't Jordan getting out, getting there and getting back; indeed, these details are treated indifferently, as much a done deal - and almost as widely reported - as the Normandy landings themselves. No, their true subject is getting on, and getting old; parts of the film would tesselate very easily with Fred Schepisi's adaptation of Last Orders, in which an elder statesman Caine showed up some twenty years ago. A large part of this is obviously circumstantial: you can't now film Caine's only partially heightened shuffles and Jackson's wonderfully jowly face without setting us to notice the effects, in some places ravages of time. (A third wristwatch is in play here: the camera.) As multiple observers have noted, watching Parker's film is like paying to see your own parents or grandparents aging; I'd go further, and say this is that rare Silver Screen shoo-in that actively confronts mortality, and invites its audience to look death squarely in the eye. Calendar Girls it is not.
No doubt cognisant of and open to producer notes and concerns, Parker tries to jolly it all along: Jackson's banter with the young nursing-home staff (teachable example of a wily performer raising herself up by her elbows and doing her level best to dig something sharper out of moderate material), flashbacks to when the lead characters were younger, more mobile and prettier (very Last Orders, this, although not quite blessed with the same calibre of acting personnel), the genial companionship of John Standing as the RAF-schooled headmaster Bernie meets and befriends on the ferry going over, stray cracks at the expense of the Jerries and the Yanks, Bernie letting the tyres down on a courier's bike in a pre-emptive strike against other people's freedom of movement. Yet there's finally no getting around it: the film doesn't represent some celebratory lap of honour, rather a last goodbye, a fond farewell not just to Bernie and 'Renie, but an entire generation who got out while the going was still relatively good, and before rapacious relatives could send them outside to walk lengths of the garden for cash. The Great Escaper trades in nostalgia out of an acknowledgement that - after four decades of misrule by Caine's beloved Conservatives - nostalgia may be all Britain has left to trade in: increasingly dim and distant memories of a supposedly glorious past when we stood upright, alone and did the right thing. Parker's film sounds the last post over these spectral reminders of yesteryear; tears will almost certainly be shed. Exactly for what, as with so much else in the Britain of 2023, remains unclear.
The Great Escaper is now showing in cinemas nationwide.