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Belated Film Review. Dad’s Army. Nostalgia for Nostalgia.

July 29, 2016


Sometimes it’s interesting to see a movie you wouldn’t ever pay to see.  Now there are two kinds of films that we will pay to see – film that are suitable for a ten year old boy to see, and films that are unbelievably unsuitable for a ten year old boy to see.  Because either we’re taking the boy, or, on very very rare occasions – we have a babysitter and we feel that to take optimum advantage of this opportunity we need to see something as unsuitable for ten year olds as possible.

Dad’s Army (2016, dir. Oliver Parker) is in neither category and we saw it on a plane.  Planes are the places where I see films that ten year old boys can see but don’t want to.

The phenomenon of this belated film tribute (which fittingly, I got to see belatedly).  The original TV series was about nostalgia for a version of World War Two.  This 2016 movie is about nostalgia for the TV series – in other words, nostalgia for nostalgia.

When I was a child, and Dad’s Army was being broadcast, then World War Two veterans were in their mid to late fifties and they were everywhere.  Some of them were my schoolteachers.  Listening to adults going on and on about the war was part of my formative experience.  If the TV series cherished an eccentric yet popular vision of the Home Front c. 1940 – then this film offers a decidedly second order version of retrospection – mourning the 1970s with its wartime fixations.  As it happens, the TV series was closer in time to the events it described than this film is to the TV series.

All of the main cast are entirely credible and we accept them in their familiar roles very quickly.  Toby Jones sounds exactly like Arthur Lowe and conveys much of the pathos of the original Mainwaring.  The only Mainwaring register that Jones does not offer (perhaps the script does not provide it) is jovial Mainwaring, a neglected aspect of Lowe’s repertoire perhaps.  Bill Nighy cannot quite match John Le Mesurier’s languid charm – but who can?  Nighy’s Wilson replicated the melancholy and disappointed qualities of the original Wilson but not quite the urbanity.  Wistful Wilson is on parade.

Bill Paterson does not have John Laurie’s wide mad staring eyes.  Nobody before or since John Laurie has had those eyes.

Only two of the original TV cast are alive, and are given obligatory cameos.  Frank Williams is permitted to be reprise his role as perhaps the least spiritually impressive Anglican minister (competition is fierce I know) in history, while of course Ian Lavender is present, though not of course as a stupid boy but as an angry general.

If the story has any kind of point to it, it is to compare and contrast the vanity, stupidity and inefficiency of men with the tenacity, sanity, and purposefulness of women. Mrs Mainwaring – a looming offscreen presence in the TV series – is an onscreen character in the film and, as played by Felicity Montagu, is a figure of transformative resolve.

So the film is not as good as it feels it ought to have been – but isn’t that the whole point of nostalgia – a sense of diminishing returns?  If the film had actually been better than the TV series, it would have sullied, or at least confused, the very memories the film was trying to evoke.  I think the point of the film was to actually have people meandering out of movie theatres, smiling, in confirmation of their belief that nothing could match the original.

There’s a kind of tragedy associated with this film coming out in 2016.  A film about a historical moment that’s been regarded as symptomatic of Britain at its best emerges in a year that will be regarded, centuries hence, as one of the most humiliating and shameful in British history.

I think the fact that I saw this film belatedly, this belated film about belatedness, makes me not only nostalgic for nostalgia, but nostalgic for the very beginning of 2016, when all sorts of wonderful people were still alive and the world seemed a very differed (and better) place than it does now.




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