This film, starring Michael Caine and Glenda Jackson, is showing in cinemas now. It is based on a poignant true story from 2014 when a 90-year-old veteran escaped from a care home in Hove to go on his own to the D-Day Anniversary celebration in Normandy.
Bernie, the hero, lives with his wife Renee in a suite of rooms in a care home that overlooks the sea. He is more mobile than she is, and we first see him walking on the promenade to buy an ice-cream, but jostled out of the way by brash cyclists. Later we see him wheeling her along the promenade in her wheelchair. She has a heart condition, but, as she confides in her carer that she does not want to tell him as he would not want her to die before him.
This care worker, Adele (played by Black actress Danielle Vitalis), has obviously bonded well with Renee, who likes to give her well-worded advice, which the younger woman takes in good spirit.
Both Bernie and Renee have boxes of old photos and other memorabilia, which they rummage through. Bernie formulates the plan to go on his own to Normandy when he is told he is too late to book with a Veterans’ party. Renee softly urges him on. So he creeps out of the institution at dawn, to take a bus and taxi down the coast to the port where parties of veterans are boarding the ship for Normandy.
D-Day celebration in Normandy
Fortunately, on the ship he is befriended by an ex-pilot and school-teacher (John Standing) who helps him by sharing his hotel room, meals etc. The scenes of the D-Day celebrations in the streets of Normandy were true-to-life (and probably gratifying to film with willing locals in the crowd scenes).
There is also a sub-plot of a Black veteran (Victor Oshin) from Helmand who has been recruited to assist on the ferry, but he also has his own demons, and nearly gets arrested for barging into a restaurant seeking alcohol when it was about to close. This topic of alcoholism is picked up again when it emerges that the school-teacher is also an alcoholic.
Remembrance of days gone by
The scenes in Normandy alternate with flashbacks of Renee’s memories of meeting Bernie as a handsome sailor who took her to see the dawn for the first time. There are scenes of them dancing rock and roll (a bit anachronistic) and of her working in a munitions factory.
There is also a memorable flashback scene of her running out of the factory and up a cliff from where she sees the bombers flying towards Normandy to assist the invasion.
Bernie spends some time on the beach, with flashback memories of coming in by ship on 6 June 1944, with a deck full of tanks. His friend, a tank-driver, is then blown up as he advances on the beach. Bernie now wants to find his grave. The ex-pilot also has a grave to find, so they want to make arrangements to go to the war cemetery at Bayeux.
An unexpected meeting
While seeking a taxi driver to take them there, they encounter a party of German veterans who had also been fighting on that beach 70 years earlier, and end up all saluting each other, or rather honouring their shared memory of the battles.
After a poignant visit to the war cemetery with its rows of identical grave-stones, Bernie is ready to go home.
But meanwhile, the scenes in Normandy have alternated with scenes of what is happening back at the care-home, where his absence has been reported to the police. Renee eventually lets Adele know that Bernie has gone to Normandy. But then the Press gets to know and it becomes headline news. So, when Bernie boards the ferry to return home he is treated as a celebrity, and the press pack are also waiting to photograph him as he returns to the front door of the care-home.
There is then a brief coda of the couple on the beachfront again, Bernie pushing Renee in her wheelchair.
Life and death
I guess this film will attract good audiences in the UK as war nostalgia is popular.
Having read my father’s letters from France in 1944, I now have a better understanding. As a weather forecaster (in the team that changed the planned date for D-Day!) he did not go over to Normandy until the first week in August. He then described the ravages of the battle-zones as he saw them. He also commented that there was a sort of ranking in military boasts: those who experienced the first week in June (and survived to tell the tale) were (deservedly) in the very top rank in the mess dinner-talk!
But what I liked most about this film was not the war-nostalgia but rather the frank scripts in the care home. Glenda Jackson’s lines, in particular, boldly confront the realities of death. She knows she has lived and loved, and is now ready to die. In real life Bernie died six months after his escapade, and Renee seven days later.
I also liked the fact that the casting is as multi-racial as modern Britain.