Dad's Army movie review: Stale jokes overshadow dream cast
This stiff remake lacks the TV show's winning charm
Published 05/02/2016 | 07:00
I must say I was puzzled when I first heard about this movie revival of the much-loved 1970s TV sitcom. Firstly, Dad's Army was very much of its time, a gentle, class-obsessed farce about a little man on a doomed quest for significance. Nobody in England cares about class and accents and received pronunciation any more, do they? Secondly, the original show was pretty much note perfect in so far as it went, a harmless comedy of manners beautifully performed by a wily cast of veteran actors.
It could hardly be improved upon, so why bother trying? Because reboots are the great addiction of our time, re-runs of the original show still perform surprisingly well on television, and the producers must reckon an enthusiastic audience is ready and waiting. Good luck to them, because Oliver Parker's film is a curiously flat and lifeless affair despite the best efforts of its hugely talented cast.
It's 1944 folks, and the Allies are about to launch their big push in Normandy when the entire plan is jeopardised by the arrival of a spy in Wilmington-on-Sea. Captain Mainwaring (Toby Jones) is pushing his decrepit Home Guard unit through another pointless field exercise when he first claps eyes on Rose Winters (Catherine Zeta-Jones, done up to the nines).
She says she's a magazine journalist here to write a story on Mainwaring's unit, and he of course is hugely flattered and begins dancing attention on her. But he has a rival for her affections in the raffish form of his sergeant, Arthur Wilson (Bill Nighy), a more plausible ladies' man who met Rose when she was studying at Oxford.
Soon the whole town is exercised by the presence of the glamorous Miss Winters, and Mainwaring and Wilson are at war, but what none of them know is that she's actually a Nazi spy here to gather information on D-Day landings and send them back to Berlin.
In the TV show, the wives and women tended to stay in the background, and Captain Mainwaring's wife, though often referred to as a figure of dread, was never actually seen. Here she is given formidable form by Felicity Montagu, while Alison Steadman plays the part of Mrs. Fox, a frisky pensioner and the paramour of Corporal Jones. When I tell you he's played by Tom Courtenay you'll get some idea of just how absurdly laden down with acting talent this film is.
Michael Gambon is the toilet-obsessed Private Godfrey, Bill Paterson the Scottish misery-guts Private Frazier, and Daniel Mays plays the black-market spiv Walker. All of this casting sounds terrific but somehow fails to make any difference to a film that looks okay and may have its heart in the right place but never really gets going.
The story is weak but that needn't have mattered if the script was funny enough and the characters sufficiently rounded. But memorable jokes are few and far between, and a clumsy Carry On element sits uneasily with memories of the TV show's almost child-like innocence.
The film's biggest problem is that it lacks a dramatic focus: Ms. Zeta-Jones strides with spurious purpose through the production looking like a well-preserved shop mannequin, and Toby Jones' Mainwaring somehow fails to dominate the stage as he should.
Mr. Jones, who's a very fine actor indeed on his day, certainly looks like the original Captain Mainwaring, but has none of Arthur Lowe's bumptious energy or gnawing class anxiety - the twin engines of the original show. He's a bit too likeable, and not at all pompous enough, to drive the comic action here.
As originally and delightfully played by John Le Mesurier, Sergeant Wilson was a rather decadent fop whose Oxbridge mannerisms infuriated his class-obsessed captain, but none of those subtleties have survived this adaptation, and only Michael Gambon manages to turn his character into something real, and genuinely amusing.
Dad's Army (PG, 100mins)
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