Review: Dad’s Army, cert PG, starring Toby Jones, Bill Nighy, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Tom Courtenay, on general release
14:19 08 February 2016
Dad’s Army has always had a special place in the hearts of East Anglian viewers. David Croft, the co-writer and creator of the classic TV series, lived in Honington, near Bury St Edmunds, while much of the location filming was done in and around Thetford. We have always claimed Dad’s Army as part of Suffolk’s cultural heritage, so we were always going to have a keen interest in the new big screen version of the film. So what’s it like?
The first thing that strikes you is that every effort has been made to be faithful to the original - right down to the typeface of the titles, the use of the iconic Bud Flanagan theme song and the ‘You Have Been Watching’ credits. But, perversely this may also be the film’s biggest failing. You have a cast bursting at the seams with star names and great acting talent but none of them are encouraged to do anything special. It’s as if they are going through the motions.
Tom Courtenay, who was mesmerising in 45 Years opposite Charlotte Rampling last year, reinvents Corporal Jones as a low-key old duffer rather than a battle-tested old war-horse anxious to get to grips with The Hun. His catch-phrases of “They Don’t Like It Up ‘Em!” and “Don’t Panic” do make it on-screen - but only just.
If the cast are anxious not to do an impression of the original actors then, bizarrely, they are equally concerned not to stray too far from the original performances either. Bill Paterson as Frazer is dour but not as subversive as John Laurie and Michael Gambon as Godfrey dithers about but they never come close to re-inventing the roles and making them their own.
The new Walmington-on-Sea number one platoon has the cream of our current acting talent in its ranks – actors such as Toby Jones, Bill Nighy, Sarah Lancashire and Daniel Mays - why not let them off the leash? The problem lies in the fact that the film doesn’t really know what it wants to be. It wants to offer audiences a cosy nostalgia-fest while, at the same time, being a modern big screen event.
The plot tries valiantly to balance these conflicting interests and sadly comes across as rather dull. The storyline about journalist Catherine Zeta-Jones coming to Walmington-on-Sea to write a story about the Home Guard and getting embroiled in the hunt for a Nazi spy is merely a flimsy device on which to hang a lot of set-piece sequences which are designed to echo moments from the original series rather than tell a new story.
The director Oliver Parker, who did so well re-inventing the works of Oscar Wilde and the world of St Trinians for the big screen, gets rather lost here. This new film merely reminds you how good the original series was. Its writing was sharp, the performances faultless and the series had depth. Episodes like Mum’s Army and My Brother and I were really moving because the writing was based on character.
On the big screen, the performances pale by comparison because they are based on caricature.
Ian Lavender gives a splendid supporting performance as Brigadier Pritchard and Frank Williams reprises his role as The Vicar but by and large you are left asking the question: “It’s OK, but as you can see the original every Saturday night, why bother?”