Bill Nighy, Blake Harrison, Captain Mainwaring, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Comedy, Corporal Jones, Drama, German spy, Home Guard, Invasion plans, Michael Gambon, Oliver Parker, Private Pike, Review, Sergeant Wilson, Toby Jones, Tom Courtenay, Walmington-on-Sea, War, World War II
D: Oliver Parker / 100m
Cast: Toby Jones, Bill Nighy, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Tom Courtenay, Michael Gambon, Blake Harrison, Daniel Mays, Bill Paterson, Mark Gatiss, Sarah Lancashire, Felicity Montagu, Alison Steadman, Emily Atack, Holli Dempsey, Julia Foster, Annette Crosbie, Ian Lavender, Frank Williams
Those of a certain age will remember the original UK TV series that ran from 1968 to 1977. It was immensely popular, with episodes regularly hitting the eighteen million mark for viewers, and it spawned a radio version, a stage version, and in 1971, there was even a movie featuring the original cast. Even today, repeat showings of Dad’s Army garner viewing figures in the low millions. It’s a national institution, and one of the few shows in the UK that pretty much everyone either likes or has a soft spot for. In short, it’s that good.
And now we have a remake to contend with, an updating (of necessity) of the cast – though series’ veteran Frank Williams does return as the vicar – and an attempt at recreating past glories with a slightly modern slant attached. When the project was first announced in 2014, the reaction amongst fans wasn’t as enthusiastic as the makers would have hoped, and when the trailer was first shown in cinemas in late 2015, some audiences gave it a less than warm reception. The general consensus seemed to be: this can’t be any good… can it?
The short answer is no. This version is so disappointing that for much of its running time, viewers will be wondering how the makers could have got it so badly wrong, and with such consistency. It’s obvious from the opening scenes that find the platoon attempting to capture a bull, and which lead to their running scattershot across a field while the camera adopts the POV of the bull, that this isn’t going to be the warmly humorous affair that the series was, or as cleverly constructed. And as the movie continues, introducing its tired plot centred around the Allied invasion in 1944 and the search for a German spy, it becomes abundantly clear that whatever merits Hamish McColl’s screenplay may have had, they’ve not been transferred to the screen.
In this version, as opposed to the series, Captain Mainwaring (a game but badly undermined Toby Jones) is portrayed not as the officious prig that he was on TV but as a bumbling idiot. Sergeant Wilson (Nighy) was always the quiet Lothario, but now we’re asked to believe that he would fall so easily and in such a headstrong way for a woman from his past, the worldly-wise journalist Rose Winters (Zeta-Jones) (he was her tutor at Oxford, which raises all sorts of questions that thankfully the script doesn’t want to explore). And then there’s the rest of the platoon: nervous Corporal Jones (Courtenay, going from the sublime 45 Years to this farrago), addled Private Godfrey (an admittedly well cast Michael Gambon), doomy Private Frazer (Paterson), upbeat spiv Private Walker (Mays), and dopey Private Pike (The Inbetweeners’ Harrison). If nothing else, it’s a great cast, but it’s also a cast who are given so little to do in real terms (other than to keep advancing the plot – there’s an incredible amount of exposition here) that one ultimately wonders what was the point of hiring them.
When the best you can do with actors of this calibre is have them stand around in a church hall for no better reason than to see how terrible they are as a Home Guard – which we already know – and then repeat the same three or four more times, it shows up the paucity of ideas on display. The rivalry between Mainwaring and Wilson, so beautifully enacted by Arthur Lowe and John Le Mesurier on TV, is retained, but with Mainwaring appearing so petulant and bullying in his responses to Wilson that all the subtlety of their relationship is lost, abandoned possibly from the first draft. Corporal Jones’s nervous anxiety in the face of danger is poorly channelled by Courtenay (who never seems comfortable in the role), while Private Pike’s innate stupidity is bolstered for some reason by his quoting famous lines from the movies of the period and being made to look like Errol Flynn (and all to little effect). Only Gambon succeeds in beating the odds, making Godfrey endearingly silly in his dotage, but then the character isn’t given anything else to do other than be endearingly silly, so Gambon can’t go wrong.
And then there’s the plot, the kind of hackneyed attempt at combining contemporary concerns with light humour that the series would have done more justice to, and more effectively, in under half an hour. The original scripts by Jimmy Perry and David Croft were tightly constructed, beautifully observant of their characters’ foibles, and the humour always arose from those foibles; everything was in service to the characters. Here it’s the opposite, and the characters are shoehorned into a plot that never gets off the ground (unlike a certain number of tanks). Thankfully, the script doesn’t attempt to hide the identity of its German spy (and their identity is easily deduced from the trailer), so that’s one hurdle it doesn’t have to stumble over in the dark, but it does lay a massive egg in the form of Mark Gatiss’ Major Theakes, a martinet senior officer with an unexplained limp and a penchant for fitting the war in around his leisure activities. It feels like Theakes is there as a satirical nod to the incompetencies of the command structure, but if so, he’s out of place and would be better off appearing in a World War I tale instead.
The movie is also one of the blandest, most visually depressing movies to watch in some time, its dour colour palette and compromised colour range doing little to engage the senses beyond the red dress worn by Zeta-Jones. Even the outdoor scenes seem to have been filmed only on days when the skies were overcast and/or gloomy. And the final shootout is so devoid of tension and excitement that you can only hope it’s all over with as quickly as possible.
If it seems unfair to judge Dad’s Army 2016 with the original show, then it’s because the original was so good, and this isn’t. This is laboured, uninspired, woeful stuff in places, and not a tribute to the enduring qualities of the TV show in any way, shape or form. Even the attempts to squeeze in the various catchphrases from the show are awkwardly handled, and some you might even miss as you fight to maintain a decent level of attention. With the show having gained such a level of respect and admiration and affection over the years, to have this released now, and to be so badly put together, begs the question that’s asked here quite often: why didn’t anyone realise how bad this was when they were making it, or was it all too late if they did?
Rating: 3/10 – another example of a UK TV sitcom given a lacklustre cinema outing, Dad’s Army should stand as a warning to other movie makers looking to adapt a small screen favourite; with a script that forgot to include any jokes, or anything that an audience that could react to by laughing out loud, this should be avoided by anyone who loves the series and who doesn’t want that love tarnished by what’s been attempted here.