Dir: Gillies MacKinnon. UK. 2014. 89mins
An engaging and illuminating biopic about Scottish engineer Robert Watson Watt, credited with inventing and developing the new fangled radar system that helped defend the British Isles from the Luftwaffe during World War II, Castles In The Sky may well be modest in scale (and likely to have a greater life on television rather than the big-screen) but it an entertaining look at a delightfully eccentric and brilliant scientist.
The actual development by Watson Watt and his team veers between jolly (a ‘eureka’ moment while playing cricket on the beach) to hard won (as they beaver over a blackboard, juggling formulas), with Izzard doing a great job in making this intriguing scientist human and fallible while also brilliant and lively.
Stand-up comedian and sometime actor Eddie Izzard impressively captures the scattershot intellect and innate brilliance of Watson Watt, a defiantly anti-establishment figure whose dislike for Oxbridge scientists saw him drawn his radar team from colleagues from the Meteorological office rather than red-brick universities.
World premiering at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, the film is directed with control and charm by Gillies MacKinnon – a former two-time winner of EIFF’s Michael Powell Award for Best British feature for The Grass Arena (1991) and Small Faces (1996) – and while it is pretty familiar period fare the film nicely captures the feel and spirit of the era.
As the film opens the British government is looking worryingly at Germany’s political situation and expansion of its military aircraft manufacturing. Old-guard scientists led by Frederick Lindemann (David Hayman) propose using limited research fund to develop a ‘death ray’ to take out possible enemy planes, but Henry Tizard (an excellent Alex Jennings), who runs a secret government fund, eventually puts his faith in Watson Watt’s radar scheme.
With a tiny budget, Watson Watt and his handpicked team decamp to the Suffolk coast to try and turn the concept of radar into a reality. Despite seemingly insurmountable problems – as well as a spy recruited by Lindemann to check on what they are up to – by 1939 they managed to develop a system to when strung out along the south east coast of England proves vital in helping win the Battle of Britain, where the RAF was outnumbered three to one.
The actual development by Watson Watt and his team veers between jolly (a ‘eureka’ moment while playing cricket on the beach) to hard won (as they beaver over a blackboard, juggling formulas), with Izzard doing a great job in making this intriguing scientist human and fallible while also brilliant and lively, especially when it comes to the tender relationship with his worried wife Margaret (Laura Fraser).
Production company/contact: Hero Films, firstname.lastname@example.org
Producer: Simon Wheeler
Executive producers: Judy Naake, Ewan Angus
Screenplay: Ian Kershaw
Cinematography: Alasdair Walker
Editor: Anne Sopel
Production designer: Andy Harris
Music: Mark Russell
Main cast: Eddie Izzard, Alex Jennings, David Hayman, Laura Fraser, Karl Davies, Julian Rhind-Tutt, Iain McKee, Celyn Jones