Cast: Toby Jones, Bill Nighy, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Tom Courtney, Michael Gambon, Blake Harrison, Daniel Mays, Bill Paterson
Director: Oliver Parker
Writer: Hamish McColl
The transition from television to film is difficult to pull off, especially for a sitcom. Most of the great classic sitcoms that I can think of, such as Fawlty Towers, Blackadder and Only Fools and Horses, revolved less around story than they did around characters. Those shows got their greatest laughs from simply having their characters interact with one another and having them respond to whatever situation they were in. The plot only existed to get them from point A to point B and was usually kept minimal to allow more room for the comedy. It’s tricky to see how such a format can work for film where audiences tend to expect a more cinematic experience. In other words everything, from story to humour to action, has to be bigger. Thus the question is whether a cinematic version of Dad’s Army (a show that I am admittedly only partially familiar with from occasional glimpses on the BBC) can retain its wit and charm through such a transition.
In 1944, with their victory of the Second World War in sight, the British army is making final preparations for the invasion of German-occupied France. The Home Guard at Walmington-on-Sea, led by Captain Mainwaring (Toby Jones), is placed on high alert when British intelligence discovers that a German spy is operating within the area. With the aid of his second-in-command Sergeant Wilson (Bill Nighy), the task of uncovering this spy falls onto Mainwaring who relishes the chance to make an actual difference in the war effort. Amongst the men under his command are Lance Corporal Jones (Tom Courtney), Private Walker (Daniel Mays), Private Pike (Blake Harrison) and Private Godfrey (Michael Gambon). Morale is suffering amongst these men until they are visited by the beautiful and glamorous Rose Winters (Catherine Zeta-Jones), a journalist working on a story about the Home Guard.
Unfortunately Dad’s Army does not pull off the TV to film transition. The main issue is that the film simply isn’t very funny. There are a few laughs here and there but regrettably much of the comedy gets brushed aside in order to make room for the story and action. I get that since the film is set during the Second World War, perhaps the filmmakers wanted to embrace the more cinematic aspects of that period in order to provide an all-round more entertaining film. Maybe if the story and action had been a bit more compelling and thrilling or had been better employed in service to the comedy they might have succeeded. What they’ve made instead however is a stale, disjointed film with occasional comedic highlights. The best parts for me were the scenes when Mainwaring and his men were all together dysfunctionally performing one of their drills. Any time the film chose to focus on the spy story or one of the romantic sub-plots it just ground straight to a halt for me. The comedy in those scenes did not do anything for me because I simply wasn’t interested in what was happening.
The characters were overall very well cast and I can only imagine how hilarious they could have been had they been given a funnier script. Jones for instance has exactly the right sort of pomposity befitting a man like Mainwaring, a proud and conceited figure who gets carried away with his delusions of grandeur. Gambon in particular shines as the clueless Godfrey, providing the film with its one consistently hilarious performance. Every joke the film provides for him is executed splendidly with an undeniable charm on the actor’s part. I like that the film chose to diverge from the show in one important respect by expanding the roles of the women, including Mrs. Mainwaring who famously remained off-screen throughout the show’s entire run. Although the film was not entirely successful in actually portraying them all as interesting or funny characters, it was still a fair effort (although I will say that there is one particularly amusing moment involving the women that takes place during the film’s climax). All in all however Dad’s Army is essentially an exercise in how lost a great cast can be without any decent material.
While there are definitely some great comedic moments in this film, they are too few and far between. There were far too many instances when the film got caught up in its tedious story and I found myself wondering when the comedy was going to return. What little I have seen of the original show has displayed an uncanny and consistent sense of wit and charm to its humour. In this film we only get occasional glimpses of that same quality. It raises the question of whether this film should even have been made in the first place when there already is an acclaimed and beloved TV series that got it all right the first time. It is not affront to the show or what it stood for, it is simply a pale imitation that delivers the odd chuckle.