‘Dad’s Army’: Film Review

'Dad's Army' Screengrab H 2016
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The farce re-awakens in this creaky comedy comeback.

Catherine Zeta-Jones, Bill Nighy and Michael Gambon headline a starry ensemble cast in this big-screen reboot of a much-loved British TV classic.

Four decades after it disappeared from British TV screens, the classic BBC wartime comedy Dad’s Army returns in this affectionate but flat-footed, uninspired big-screen reboot. Set in the fictional English coastal town of Walmington-on-Sea during World War II, the show centered on the exploits of the local Home Guard, a platoon of mostly elderly and incompetent part-time soldiers who served as Winston Churchill’s last line of defense against possible Nazi invasion.

While there is obvious marquee appeal in a stellar ensemble cast headlined by Catherine Zeta-Jones, Bill Nighy and Michael Gambon, Dad’s Army is hobbled by too much broad slapstick and labored clowning. Director Oliver Parker does an adequate job, but the screenplay by Hamish McColl (Paddington, Mister Bean’s Holiday) is very patchy indeed. The TV show’s enduring popularity in Britain and its former colonial outposts will generate domestic box office buzz based on nostalgic curiosity, but this thinly scripted throwback is unlikely to attract new converts among more discerning comedy fans worldwide. Universal launches the film in the U.K. on February 5.

The Dad’s Army TV series will be familiar to anyone who lived in Britain in the 1960s and 1970s, though it never went on to enjoy US success like Monty Python or Doctor Who. Running for nine seasons between 1968 and 1977, it drew peak ratings of around 18 million, around one third of the UK population. It spawned a 1971 feature film and a spin-off stage show, and still enjoys a healthy following in TV reruns. Indeed, this lingering sense of fond ownership towards the original could prove a barrier to hardcore fans embracing Parker’s film.

In both tone and setting, Parker and McColl play safe with the basic ingredients, recycling many of the show’s familiar catchphrases and visual motifs. They have nudged the story forward a few years to 1944, with D-Day looming, which allows for an espionage subplot about an undercover Nazi spy arriving in Walmington seeking clues about Allied plans to invade occupied France. The film-makers also introduce a host of female characters who were largely absent from their small-screen blueprint. But otherwise they maintain the show’s key mix of submerged class tensions, tame sexual innuendo and comfort-food nostalgia.

Toby Jones steps impressively into the late Arthur Lowe’s boots as Captain Mainwaring, the leader of this toytown platoon, a provincial bank manager with a good heart behind his comically self-important bluster. Jones walks a fine line between impersonation and reinvention, allowing the character some soulful humanity in all his pomposity. Sadly the same cannot be said of his starry fellow players, whose talents are mostly wasted on thinly sketched caricatures and weak double entendres.

Slipping into autopilot mode, Nighy once again rolls out his lugubrious lothario routine as Sergeant Wilson, a retired Oxford professor who is Mainwaring’s social superior but military inferior. Blake Harrison gets the thankless role of Private Pike, Wilson’s illegitimate son, a dim-witted mummy’s boy sitting out the war at home after flunking his army medical. Ian Lavender, who portrayed Pike in the TV show, makes an audience-winking cameo.

Whatever the faults of Dad’s Army as entertainment, there is a tinge of sadness in seeing British screen heavyweights like Gambon, Tom Courtenay and Bill Paterson mugging mirthlessly as they play befuddled old fools in a near-constant state of confusion. The male characters here are all sexually naive buffoons, the women (led by Felicity Montagu as Mainwaring’s wife and Sarah Lancashire as Pike’s mother) mostly henpecking harridans. Nobody comes out of this with much dignity.

At least Zeta-Jones brings a dash of Hitchcockian glamour as Rose Winters, a vampish big-city journalist sent to report on the Walmington platoon while modeling a parade of fabulous outfits, though her femme fatale agenda turns out to be as transparently sinister as the ham-fisted script signals from the outset. This is not a film overly burdened with subtlety or ambiguity. The creaky scene in which Winters lures Mainwaring, Wilson and Pike to her home with her siren-like seductive powers is a masterclass in botched comic timing.

Picking up the pace in their third act, Parker and McColl deliver an all-action finale involving a German U-boat, a dramatic gun battle and a redemptive surge of heroism among the men and women of Walmington. There are homages to Casablanca and From Here To Eternity, plus a stirringly martial score by Charlie Mole which evokes a slew of classic British war movies. The period production design and idyllic setting, with the rugged Yorkshire coast standing in for the English Channel 200 miles south, are rich in visual charm. The cinematography by Christopher Ross is lush and painterly, if a little too moody for a humorous romp.

But these few pleasing touches are not enough to rescue Dad’s Army from its fatal lack of comic spark. For fans of the original TV series, this reboot will feel like a disappointment. For everybody else, a pointless and easily avoidable misfire.

Production company: DJ Films

Cast: Toby Jones. Catherine Zeta Jones, Bill Nighy, Sarah Lancashire, Michael Gambon, Tom Courtenay, Felicity Montagu, Bill Paterson, Blake Harrison, Alison Steadman, Daniel Mays

Director: Oliver Parker

Screenwriter: Hamish McColl

Producer: Damian Jones

Cinematographer: Christopher Ross

Editor: Guy Bensley

Music: Charlie Mole

Rated PG (UK), 100 minutes