Castles in the Sky
Eddie Izzard stars in Gillies MacKinnon's hamstrung WWII drama
It's receiving its world premiere at Edinburgh International Film Festival, but this BBC Science commissioned pre-WWII drama feels very limited in cinematic potential by both its budget and its story. Directed by Gillies MacKinnon (Hideous Kinky) and centring on Scottish radar pioneer Robert Watson Watt (Eddie Izzard, doing a pretty convincing accent), it tells the story of an undoubtedly important moment in history, but one that is not dramatic or surprising enough to sustain a feature film.
It begins promisingly enough, in the paranoid corridors of 1935 Whitehall, where David Hayman’s Professor Lindeman states the pressing need for the creation of a British ‘death ray’, a weapon that will allow the army to boil German pilots in their cockpits. Soon the bumbling Watson Watt has been recruited, with the rather more realistic goal of creating a system to detect incoming planes using radio waves. Izzard has fun bouncing off Julian Rhind-Tutt’s impatient and humourless government overseer, and the first half hour is entertaining, family-friendly, informative stuff.
But although Watson Watt’s project is always in danger of being axed, the film lacks credible tension. Churchill (Tim McInnerny) and Lindeman are broadly characterized as cartoony antagonists, until they’re not any more, and Watson Watt and his team overcome each obstacle with preordained ease (struck by an idea when playing cricket! Struck by an idea when bouncing a ball!).
With a distinct lack of action inherent to the story, MacKinnon continually leans on scenes of Izzard’s Watson Watt performing ad hoc scientific demonstrations like an excitable physics teacher, or montages of him writing furiously on a blackboard, to drum up excitement. The feeling of MacKinnon literally running out of footage is not helped when, after an admirably downbeat conclusion, things end with a tacked-on Battle of Britain sequence that looks suspiciously like cobbled-together archive.
Screening at Filmhouse, Edinburgh, Mon 23 Jun and Cineworld, Edinburgh, Sat 28 Jun as part of Edinburgh International Film Festival 2014.