Wednesday, 12 April 2017

Dad's Army: The Movie

I’ve finally just got round to seeing the film version of the eternally popular 70s sitcom Dad’s Army. The mixed reviews it received meant I wasn’t enthused about seeing it, but in the end it was slightly better than I expected.

The thing I found most interesting was seeing the acting choices that each member of the ensemble cast took, which came down to either trying to play the character or trying to play the actor who originally played the character. The results were a mixed bag.

Of those who tried playing the character, I reckon Captain Mainwaring and Corporal Jones both failed to work. I had thought that Toby Jones would be a good Mainwaring, a man who’s a pompous idiot with an inferiority complex, but who, for all the slapstick, is prepared to lead from the front and die for his men and country. I didn’t get any of that, with Mainwaring just being a fat bald bloke who’s in charge. This was doubly irritating as in the BBC’s Dad’s Army biopic John Sessions was a perfect Arthur Lowe in both looks and mannerisms.

Corporal Jones was even worse bearing in mind that Tom Courtenay is one of the UK’s best actors, but his Jones was just an annoying bloke who couldn’t be bothered to say most of his numerous catchphrases. I think the mistake in casting was that Clive Dunn was a young man playing an old man, so Jones was an amusing caricature who could do all the slapstick nonsense, but getting an old actor to play an old character just falls flat.

On better ground was Bill Nighy, who made no effort to be either Sergeant Wilson or John Le Mesurier, which was the right thing to do as only one man could ever master Wilson’s affable ennui, and instead he did what he does in every film role I’ve ever seen him in and was just Bill Nighy wandering around in a daze. Personally I think they missed a trick, though, in not getting Ian Lavender to play Wilson, which would have cemented one of the original sitcom’s best running jokes. Bill Paterson was also acceptable as Private Frazer, although he had little to do, playing a dour Scotsman rather than attempting to be John Laurie although, again, I reckon Ralph Riach in the BBC biopic was a better Laurie.

The actors who decided to play the original actors feared much better. Michael Gambon pretty much stole the show as Private Godfrey with all the best lines and a perfect mimic of Arnold Ridley’s mannerisms and way of moving. Daniel Mays was a fine James Beck, both looking and sounding like Private Walker, and I was most surprised by whoever they got to be Private Pike. I don’t who that actor was, but I quickly started to think of him as being Ian Lavender.

Having got together such a large ensemble cast, with most of the cast being acceptable enough to make the reboot work, the strange thing was the decision to ignore them for lengthy sections and instead waste time on telling a story. The sitcom always worked perfectly when it was just the platoon standing in the church hall listening to Mainwaring explain a perfectly simple mission to find German parachutists disguised as nuns, while Wilson yawns and questions whether Mainwaring is being wise, Godfrey gets told off for being awkward and asks to be excused, Frazer pours scorn on Godfrey for being senile, Jones tells a rambling story about the Sudan while waving his bayonet and getting slapped down for going off in the realms of fantasy, Stupid boy Pike says his mum won’t let him stay out late, and Walker offers to get his hands on some nuns’ habits cheaply.

Frankly, ninety minutes of that would have kept me amused because that’s what the show is: a group of blokes coping with the boredom of waiting for something bad to happen by irritating each other, but being always ready to go into battle or at least extract Jones out of a combine harvester. Instead too much time was taken up with the war, spies, romance, and other uninteresting nonsense, which often made me think I was watching a comedy war film instead of Dad’s Army, which is a character comedy set during the war.

On the other hand the decision to spend more time with the usually underused female characters worked well. Giving Mrs Fox and Godfrey’s sisters something to do was fun, even though I was irritated to see Godfrey lived in town, and Mavis having a role other than being Pike’s mum was entertaining. Strangest of all was the decision to have Mainwaring’s wife on screen, which at first felt like sacrilege, but is a good example of when it’s best to ignore canon. Maintaining the running joke that we never see her wouldn’t work well in a one-off film, so it was better to make her into a female version of Mainwaring.

I'd guess the inspiration for the story came from one of the sitcom's best episodes Mum's Army, in which Mainwaring decides to use the womenfolk to help out, which leads to him falling for one of the recruits. In half-an-hour that episode managed more laughs than the film managed, and the romance plot was more believable. Despite that, on the whole, the film was a decent revival that works best if you’re in a good mood, although I’d have still liked a few more jokes and a few more scenes where the cast are standing together in the church hall trading catchphrases and rambling on pointlessly.


Peter Hill said...

I watched this film on DVD recently and to be honest I approached it with low expectations as I had heard that it had been poorly received in Britain. The film went straight to DVD down here in Australia. A cinema release had been planned as I had spotted posters in the local multiplex but after its lukewarm reception in Britain, it was cancelled. (Very few British films now get cinema releases in Australia, even the recent highly praised film version of J G Ballard's novel 'High-Rise' went direct to DVD here. The only British films that seem to be screened at theatres here are the ones starring Maggie Smith).
Upon watching it, I mildly enjoyed it but it didn't come close to capturing the spirit of the original TV series. I agree with your thoughts on the casting choices. Toby Jones is an excellent actor but he looked awkward and uncomfortable as Mainwaring. In the original television series, Mainwaring was a more complex and contradictory personality. Had he lived in the 1980s, he would have been a devout Thatcherite- Mainwaring represented the 'new wealth' of the emerging merchant-class of the Industrial revolution in Britain. They regarded themselves as superior to the lower working-class but their contempt also travelled upwards as well, as they despised the inherited wealth and privileges of the upper class to which Sgt Wilson belonged. The slight simmering tensions between the two was an ongoing feature of the series and the subtle friendship that developed between the two was often strained by Mainwaring's resentment of Wilson's privileged birth and Wilson's gentle condescension towards his platoon CO.
Bill Nighy, as you are right to say, was just 'Bill Nighy' again. Like Hugh Grant's role in 'Four Weddings & a Funeral', Nighy can never escape his break-through role in 'Love Actually'. Even when he is trying to play a serious-straight role, like the Vampire lord in the 'Underworld' movies, he is still Bill Nighy playing Bill Nighy.
To be fair to the film-makers, they were faced with a daunting task. The TV series ran for many years and had ample time to develop and fully exploit all the comedic potential and inter-action of the characters, unlike the mere 90min available to the film version. And as the producers of the original series have commented, most of the main cast were basically playing versions of themselves- Arthur Lowe (Mainwaring) was an uptight conservative who was uncomfortable with the changes in Modern Britain, John Le Mesurier (Wilson) was a gentle, effete character etc. Generations who have grown up with these characters probably attended the movie with images of the old series firmly implanted on their minds, so any new version was going to seem like a pale shadow or even a travesty.
Thanks for the review, regards Pete

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