Directed by Oliver Parker
(5th February 2016 – DJ Films)
Written by Hamish McColl
Starring: Toby Jones, Bill Nighy, Tom Courtenay, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Michael Gambon & Blake Harrison
Synopsis: The Walmington-on-Sea Home Guard platoon deal with a visiting female journalist and a German spy as World War II draws to its conclusion.
Resurrecting a decades-old television show is never an easy prospect for a new creative team, least of all a show that is beloved by many British folks of a certain age – and yet that’s exactly what director Oliver Parker (The Importance Of Being Earnest, St. Trinian’s, Johnny English Reborn) and writer Hamish McColl (Johnny English Reborn, Mr Bean’s Holiday) face with their version of Dad’s Army, the World War 2-set sitcom created by David Croft and Jimmy Perry.
Dad’s Army was a 1968 show that focused on a fictional seaside town’s Home Guard unit; essentially a group of useless old men that were meant as the last line of local defence from a Nazi attack, if one was ever to occur. It was predominantly focused on these men and their relationships with one another, and over the course of its 80 episodes it became one of Britain’s most cherished sitcoms, regularly cresting near the top of polls for “Best British TV shows”.
Of course, with the period setting fixing the timeline (in this case in 1944), Dad’s Army can avoid many of the pitfalls that often comes with modernising an old property, and instead just focus on what made the original work: the characters. Naturally, the production cast a wide net in selecting the perfect cast, and as a result opted for choices as fitting as they are uninspiring. That’s not to say that Parker and co. have made a mistake with any of their selections; they haven’t, but they’ve obviously aimed for the actors with the highest exposure, rather than necessarily picking actors that are best for the roles. For example, selecting Blake Harrison to play Private Pike, a character famous for repeatedly being called a “stupid boy”, is not particularly imaginative casting. The dumb one from The Inbetweeners playing the dumb one from Dad’s Army? By jove, where do they get their ideas? Snark aside, much like the rest of the cast, it’s a solid choice. After all, Harrison has had more practice than most at his own nincompoop brand of comic timing.
In fact, Pike’s role is rather small, the film instead chooses to focus on Captain Mainwaring (played by the wonderful Toby Jones) and Sergeant Wilson (the ever-dependable Bill Nighy), the two leaders of the group. Mainwaring is a short, rotund, self-important, foolish man who believes he knows best, whereas Wilson is his gentler and wiser counterpart that attempts to subtly steer him in the right direction. The always superb Toby Jones does an excellent job of filling original actor Arthur Lowe‘s sizeable shoes as the stubborn captain, but it’s Nighy who, while always welcome, just plays his same effortlessly charming, but slightly doddering self. Here, their relationship is more obstinate and confrontational than it ever was, creating a new, but sadly less interesting dynamic.
In a move that can only be described as perplexing, Dad’s Army doesn’t actually spend that much time with the whole unit. Instead, it focuses on a Nazi spy masquerading as a magazine journalist (Catherine Zeta-Jones), who instead distracts the men with her feminine wiles while she pursues information about Britain’s seafront defences. Naturally, and frustratingly, all of the men immediately fall for her and strive for her attention and admiration, fracturing a unit that is often only barely functional. It disrupts the chemistry that made the television show work in favour of a plot line that is unconvincing and frustrating. The audience know from the start that she is a spy, the joke is supposed to be that the men are completely oblivious to it, but McColl and Parker don’t know how to squeeze any actual comedy from the premise and instead we’re left watching Jones, Nighy, Harrison, Courtenay, and co. all unsuccessfully and miserably attract her romantic interest.
Zeta-Jones is just herself here, and is un-compelling. While she may be conventionally alluring, it doesn’t make sense for everyone to immediately gravitate around her when many of them are already married, or in long healthy relationships. Sure, you may arguably be hard pressed to find a man that would turn down a woman like Zeta-Jones for their respective partner, but she’d have to open the invitation before you’re willing to detonate your entire life for her.
As such, the central conceit of the film doesn’t engage, and so the film moves at an embarrassingly lackadaisical pace. Occasionally the group will get together and shenanigans will occur, but they’re short lived, and then we’re forced to endure several more awkwardly unromantic scenes between Zeta-Jones and her various suitors.
In fairness, it could be argued that the glacial pace reflects the dearth of activity in a sleepy seaside town, which would be perfect if it was a drama, but it’s meant to be a comedy, based on a show that oozed charm and charisma from every one of its ancient pores. This is where Dad’s Army fails at a fundamental level; McColl’s script just isn’t good enough, and isn’t engaged with what truly makes these characters tick. Instead they are a collection of references and ticks, but with no actual soul to tie them together. As such, the veteran actors, as amazing as they are in their respective careers, are forced into crooked caricatured pantomimes of cherished characters, unable (or perhaps unwilling) to put their own spin on the characters of old, or in the case of Nighy, not even trying.
Tom Courtenay and Michael Gambon on the other hand, fare best. Courtenay has one of the bigger roles as Corporal Jones, and his rendition contains enough of the original character and his own mannerisms to make his version distinct and a standout. The one true saving grace though, is Gambon’s glorious portrayal of Private Godfrey, the oldest, kindest, and most blundering of the group. Godfrey is a fragile, beautiful soul; a retired shop assistant who lives with his sisters and loves gardening. He is an exquisite, selfless breed of human being who is impossibly likeable and instantly lovable. He’s the person equivalent of a big, gorgeous teddy bear that you want to pounce on and hug (but be kind to his old bones). Gambon is rarely deployed, but whenever he’s on screen he draws the attention, and always provides belly laughs and a sense of warmth that is sadly absent from much of the rest of the production.
Another positive asset that Dad’s Army gains from a modern treatment is a slight feminist leaning, namely a greater involvement for the women in our central men’s lives. In fact, when the Nazis and our Home Guard heroes clash in the final moments, it is the women who inevitably come to their useless partners’ aid and save the day, and consequently, Britain. Yes, that does mean the Nazis don’t win. Somehow, one doesn’t consider that a spoiler, although it would be a surprisingly bold move for Dad’s Army to have a late third act shift into a dystopian, swastika-filled nightmare.
Ultimately, Dad’s Army suffers from a flawed and rote initial concept that subsequently contributes to a lacklustre comedic script – the very foundation upon which any film relies. Despite the immensely talented cast, it can’t quite salvage a win. Not necessarily bad but certainly not good, Dad’s Army is as banal in its overt stereotypical Britishness as afternoon tea and crumpets on a sun-baked countryside day.
Leisurely paced and well-intentioned, it’s a film that may prove to be a mildly distracting, but pleasurably nostalgic experience for an already initiated generation, but it will fail to captivate any new recruits to bolster the ranks of the Walmington-on-Sea Home Guard. It’s entirely harmless but equally uninspired and inert, and hobbles across the finish line with its principal cast’s dignity intact, but not much else. Who do you think you are kidding, Mr. Parker?