Castles In The Sky

***1/2

Reviewed by: Andrew Robertson

Castles In The Sky
"Worthy, entertaining, but suffers in places from heavy-handedness."

In an era when conventional military wisdom held that "the bomber will always get through", in that brief-pre-nuclear window where conventional military wisdom had not been replaced by Strangelovian excess, when men wore school ties and everything had valves, there was radar.

Radio detection and ranging, one of the first acronyms to enter popular consciousness, credited to one of one of the hundreds of men whose inventions incrementally ratcheted us towards the headlong futurity of the modern age; Sir Robert Watson Watt. The meteorologist turned electronic pioneer is played by Eddie Izzard, fresh from his recent stage tour and a turn as one of NBC's Hannibal's menagarie of menace. All wee gestures and cocked head, a soft Scots that recalls Robin Williams' Mrs Doubtfire, it's a solid performance that serves a film that doesn't quite work.

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Castles... is worthy, entertaining, but suffers in places from a heavy-handedness that includes Julian Rhind-Tutt and David Hayman's performances as gate-keeping ministerial apparatchiks, Tim McInnerny's jowly Churchill, and a bit where the name of the film is said in serious tones as the music swells.

Castles In The Sky would seem to owe a debt to 1942's First Of The Few but the latter's clumsiness and occasional lack of detail are tempered by the fact that it was an active component of the propaganda war as much as it was a document about the birth of the Spitfire. Here invention is treated as a mystery, small analogies from cricket on the beach to discarded bottles on the lawn explaining the incremental steps towards a system that works. There's a good indication that this is a team effort, with solid contributions from Karl Davies, Iain McKee and Celyn Jones, but the responsibility hangs heavy upon Izzard's mobile shoulders.

One could pick boring technical holes in the film if one were so inclined - a Stuka variant seen in the otherwise efficient credit sequence didn't see service until 1943, which would suggest a far more efficient warning system was being developed in 1930-odd - but often it's reasonable, touching even. Watching Mr and Mrs Watt dancing on the telephone is charming, a lovely little nod towards the everyday magical that is predicated upon Watt's efforts.

Written by Ian Kershaw, who has previously scripted and appeared in a variety of episodes of a variety of long-running British TV shows, Castles... makes concessions to drama at the expense of history and vice versa. Director Gilles MacKinnon has a similarly TV heavy CV (with occasional ventures into film like 1998's Hideous Kinky) and this is competently put together.

Which is, one supposes, the problem - radar was one of a panoply of war-winning technologies, but it's hard to grasp - "making the invisible visible" is one of the challenges Watson-Watt and his merry men were seeking to solve, but Castles In The Sky doesn't quite manage it.

The performances give us the stress and the strain but the abstract nature of the problem isn't made concrete. Studded across the Channel coast are massive reflectors designed to focus the sound of approaching engines into earphones - almost purely mechanical, they were an attempt to solve a problem with the materials at hand. There's also a comparison to be drawn with Turing, the bomb, and the cracking of Enigma - it's also getting filmic treatment, but it's, well, more filmic - the influence of codes and ciphers and the history of computing is more visible to you reading this on a website than the importance of radar, even if you've recently flown or glanced at a weather forecast. That Turing's importance to electronic computers is perhaps overshadowed at a practical level by Lyon's Tea Rooms is neither here nor there - it's a story with secrets both personal and strategic, while this is about a chap who had an idea that would work but which is hard to explain. Not just to Ministry folk with hats and coats, but to audiences.

Eye For Film saw the film at the 2014 Edinburgh Film Festival, but it screens in the UK on BBC2 on the 4th of September. It's worth seeking out, as it's a well crafted and well-acted version of an infrequently told story, but it's insufficient in its strength so is unlikely to produce significant return, and on reflection it could perhaps have done with some fine-tuning.

Reviewed on: 01 Sep 2014
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The story of the Scottish engineer and developer of radar Robert Watson-Watt.

Director: Gillies MacKinnon

Writer: Ian Kershaw

Starring: Eddie Izzard, Karl Davies, Laura Fraser, Julian Rhind-Tutt, David Hayman, Alex Jennings, Celyn Jones, Iain McKee, Lesley Harcourt, Joe Bone

Year: 2014

Runtime: 90 minutes

BBFC: PG - Parental Guidance

Country: UK

Festivals:

EIFF 2014

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