When the BBC sitcom Dad's Army debuted in the 60s, memories of World War II were fresh enough for affectionate nostalgia to sustain its bittersweet appeal. Almost 70 years after VE Day, this film must trade second-hand, on an allegiance to the compact, crisply written original, most of whose fans will be pulling a pension by now.
But, fatally, it misses the essence of the imperishable TV show. With (I think) only one memorable exception, the Home Guard of the title never came anywhere near a German. The film has them outwit real Jerries (trust me: this is not a spoiler), but makes them do so with an implausible, albeit clumsy, deliberateness. To keep faith, they would need to do so by accident, preferably without even being aware of it.
Writer Hamish McColl and director Parker (Johnny English Reborn) try to breathe life into the disinterred corpse of the comedy classic but virtually everything about this film has about it what Sybil Fawlty called the death force.
The bits that tip a hat to the original feel dutiful and deliberate: everyone who gets to recite a signature line (Nighy's Wilson: "Do you think that's wise, sir?"; Mainwaring to Pike: "You stupid boy!") does so as if unwillingly saluting. Meanwhile the story is opened out both visually (lots of pretty countryside) and narratively: Mrs Mainwaring, never seen on TV ("She hasn't left the house since Munich") is a substantial role and Wilson has a love interest, for heaven's sake.
The story is that the Germans have inserted an agent ("Who do you think you are kidding, Mr Churchill?" says the scheming officer and you can almost hear the cymbal-crash) and a glamorous reporter (Zeta-Jones) is in town taking an interest in the platoon's doings. If it takes you more than nine nanoseconds to spot the suspicious coincidence, you may be asleep, and not much that follows will disturb your slumbers.
Even Jones' sharp performance as Mainwaring, which does not try to channel Arthur Lowe, drowns in the flurry of slapstick, pratfalls and leaden one-liners. Those old enough to remember one of the high points of British comedy will surely not like this one up 'em; those who don't would be best to look away.
Cast: Bill Nighy, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Toby Jones, Tom Courtenay, Michael Gambon, Blake Harrison, Daniel Mays, Bill Paterson
Director: Oliver Parker
Running time: 100 mins
Rating: PG (low-level violence)
Verdict: Who do you think you are kidding?