Nottingham Trent University lecturer and Southwell's own William Ivory held a Q&A for his latest film, The Great Escaper, at Broadway Cinema - and we were asked to stop by and check it out...
Director: Oliver Parker
Starring: Michael Caine, Glenda Jackson, Wolf Kahler
Running time: 96 minutes
I recently attended a screening of The Great Escaper at Broadway Cinema, where audience members were treated to a post-screening Q&A session with Nottingham Trent University’s senior lecturer William Ivory, who penned the screenplay and hails from Southwell.
The three-time BAFTA nominee’s latest release is currently enjoying all the critical acclaim you would expect from a film with such a charming premise, paired with a talented screenwriter at the helm. Sir Michael Caine plays the lead, which is particularly poignant given the film is perhaps Caine’s last ever, as he announced his retirement from acting recently.
The Great Escaper is based on the real-life events of 2014, when 89-year-old military veteran Bernie Jordan (Caine) decided to go AWOL from his seaside care home to attend the seventieth anniversary D-Day commemorations in France.
What became apparent in the Q&A session was Ivory’s recognition that the story had to evoke more than the chuckle and smile that the film’s simple synopsis induces upon reading it for the first time.
Bernie escapes from a care home, he makes it to France, but what then? Is there a story to be told? It was clear that Ivory wanted it to be more than a tale recounting the attention the media gave his so called ‘escape’, and the film successfully delivers more than that. Ivory also voiced his disdain for how films often deal with stories relating to the older generations, and the recurring tendency to have the elderly portrayed as sweary and nonconforming to garner an audience’s curiosity and amusement. The Great Escaper treats seniors with realism and dignity, and trusts that there is more of a story to be told than just that of the antics of a mischievous geriatric escapee.
Ivory made a statement in the Q&A which was “everyone goes to war”, referring to how everyone is touched by the realities of it - not just those who go to fight
The Great Escaper is not a war movie, either - it is a love story. Although it is indicated he still has the capacity to live independently, Bernie moves into the care home with his ailing wife Irene (the late Glenda Jackson), who requires the assistance of nurses but is mentally in fine fettle. Known as Rene, the two saw their romance blossom in 1930s dance halls, and have a marriage spanning seventy years and counting. Their love story becomes the film’s needed melody.
Standing by the ocean, the feature opens with a close-up of Bernie. An ageing visage, no posturing, no pretension, simply a man on a beach, deep in contemplation. Bernie stands on Camber Sands in East Sussex, but it is the beaches of Normandy that weigh heavy on his mind.
Once out of his reverie, Bernie orders a cup of tea from the seafront kiosk with four sugars, with Ivory telling us afterwards how this detail is a nod towards a man who is still fully embracing the absence of wartime rations. In the kiosk queue are two brash cyclists, who are talking loudly and are generally ignorant to Bernie’s presence, wrapped up in the personal glories to be had on an upcoming cycling trip. I considered at this point whether the film would have a cynical edge, but this was not the case at all; it merely added to the realism, and perhaps the suggestion of the theme of a journey – they had their cycling, whereas Bernie has his own self-serving journey to consider.
Having missed the deadline to attend the official accompanied trip to France that the care home would have facilitated, we learn that Bernie wants to make the journey alone. We begin to understand as the film unfolds that this is due to a particular event that haunts him.
Ivory made a statement in the Q&A which was “everyone goes to war”, referring to how everyone is touched by the realities of it - not just those who go to fight. Everyone is an emotional casualty. The toll on Bernie is often shown through an understated performance by Caine, whose eyes betray a lot of inner conflict and pain. He handles the character of Bernie with a dignified gruffness.
When a member of the audience asked Ivory about Caine’s approach to acting in the film, he quoted Caine as saying his process was simply “make 'em laugh, make' em cry”
When a member of the audience asked Ivory about Caine’s approach to acting in the film, he quoted Caine as saying his process was simply “make 'em laugh, make' em cry”, whereas Jackson had a more meticulous, considered approach. Both methods, of course, pay dividends. The loss of Glenda Jackson, who died months after completing the movie, is hammered home through reminders of her acting class, especially in non-consequential but heart-warming scenes wherein she interacts with the care home staff that she has come to know. Rene’s touching friendship with the surly but soft-centred carer Adele (Danielle Vitalis) adds yet more colour to the film’s emotional landscape. Jackson’s performance is effortless and contains warmth and humour, aided by Ivory’s skill as a writer of well-observed, witty, naturalistic dialogue.
With the film wasting no time, Bernie takes the ferry to France and meets a fellow veteran on board called Arthur (John Standing), who had never been to France himself during the war - but we come to learn he has his own personal reasons for wanting to be there for the anniversary, with Bernie forming a friendship with him.
Bernie’s own reasons are explored in brief flashbacks to D-Day. While these are not the strongest elements of the film in their execution, they serve a purpose in providing insight into Bernie’s internal struggle over a split-second decision he made all those years ago.
Much of the emotional impact comes in the scenes taking place in the present day between Caine and Jackson, but there are a handful that show their initial courtship as young lovers – and it was always going to be a tall order for actors to portray younger versions of Bernie (Will Fletcher) and Rene (Laura Marcus), especially delivering on that chemistry that is so effortlessly achieved by the older leads. While Marcus gives a poignant insight into a young Rene, Fletcher fails to remind me of Bernie, except in appearance. This doesn’t see the film fall, however, as the focus is predominantly on the present day.
What can heal old wounds, if not a love story seventy years in the making?
While Bernie is in France in the contemporary strand of the story, the film also shows Rene being left behind, exploring her emotions as she navigates both the media attention Bernie’s trip is gaining and Bernie’s absence. Bernie was initially feared missing from the care home, but after the police were alerted, the hashtag #thegreatescaper came into being once his true whereabouts were established. From that moment, the imaginations of the public and media were captured, as they awaited news of Bernie’s travels. Rene’s declining health in these scenes creates a palpable fear that Bernie could be missing precious time with his wife.
Interestingly, I found the cuts between several scenes to be quite abrupt, with a change of scene occurring right when there is a crest of a wave of emotion. A particular scene that illustrates this shows Bernie standing among the thousands of headstones of the fallen British soldiers in the Bayeux War Cemetery. He exclaims in grief-stricken astonishment, “What a waste!” The camera then zooms out to show the magnitude of just how many headstones there are, and then the scene ends suddenly.
Bernie has never shared his wartime experiences with Rene, but she is acutely aware he is holding something back, hence her unembellished and sole encouragement to Bernie when he considers the trip: “You shouldn’t go – unless you have to.” Much of their relationship is unspoken. She refuses to delve deeper into Bernie’s motivations, in fear of uncovering a pain that cannot be overcome by the couple, and the sudden cut in such scenes strongly reinforces the act of locking pain in a box before it overwhelms, pocketing the key, and getting on with it for the greater good. Yet what can heal old wounds, if not a love story seventy years in the making?
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