There is a certain timeslot from days gone by, in your local independent cinema, that Castles In The Sky utterly belongs to. The weekend afternoon matinee slot, designed specifically for families, that I remember from my time working in a cinema as the ‘Tired Daddy Doesn’t Want to Answer His Five Year Old’s Innocent Yet Fiendish Questions’ slot. Also it rained popcorn. Now this slot mostly consists of variable animated fare put on at 10.15 in the morning by chain cinemas who don’t appreciate the sanctity of the lie-in. This is a shame, as Castles In The Sky evokes the nostalgia of films like Memphis Belle, despite being tonally more similar to movies such as the 2005 Lassie picture.
Based on a true story, the depiction of Robert Watson Watt and Skip Wilkins’ invention of radar is somewhat unbelievable as depicted here, and has an element of corniness that is either endearing or aggravating depending on your outlook. It’s essentially the story of endearing boffins slowly and gruellingly eliminating seemingly endless problems via three – count them, three – chalkboard crossfade montages with inspirational music.
Said music looms over the film as if striving for a mood at odds with what’s being depicted. There’s a personal cost to Watt’s work that gets buried beneath triumphant Battle of Britain footage come the ending. It’s surprisingly bittersweet that, after all his struggles, he finishes the movie in a situation that isn’t elaborated on, a place where the story could go on. Yes, he contributed hugely to ‘our finest hour’, and without him the world might be a very different place, but by stopping there the film almost backs up the (pantomimically bad) opposition by ignoring the man and focussing on the invention.
Essentially, we owe Watt, and yet the aspects of his life that we know least about – and therefore the most intriguing – are not part of the final captions. Considering his treatment by the government throughout, the celebratory aspect of the Battle of Britain feels oddly jarring. ‘Not as bad as Nazi Germany’ isn’t much of a recommendation, really.
The threat of war, and the seriousness of the project, is present throughout. This is mainly achieved through archive footage of 30s Germany, and here the music flips into what might as well be someone shouting ‘OH SHIT IT’S THE NAZIS, OH SHIT DOOM DOOM DOOM’ while thwacking a bin lid. For a family film, sometimes its broadest brushstrokes are patronisingly unsubtle. Still, there’s a gentle humour present in the character’s interactions which will probably please the parents more than the children.
If any children are going to get a kick out of this film it’s the ones who set up weather stations in their back garden, or the ones who’ve built a two-way radio out of kit parts and LEGO. That’s essentially who Watt’s team is composed of: geeky science graduates and enthusiastic amateurs, with a team assembled from a meteorological and regional background. There’s an undercurrent of anger at social immobility, portraying government as users of people acting for a greater, more human good. Mainly though, it’s a light and frothy depiction of a serious subject with undercurrents of darkness.
Eddie Izzard, playing Watt, is ideal for this tone. He affects a Scottish lilt (not Barr’s Pineappleade, in this case) but still sounds fundamentally like Eddie Izzard. Laura Fraser has to do a lot of acting to no one as the wife Watt leaves behind to complete his work. It’s quite refreshing to see that the endearing amateurism and savant-like genius that makes Izzard’s Watt so ideal for this task, and so rootable for against Whitehall, makes him entirely unsuited to balancing his work with his home life.
The strengths of this film, besides striving earnestly for and largely achieving bucket loads of charm, is that there is a strong story with a lot of difficult choices made by the characters. The problem, then, is that in going for the family aspect the filmmakers play it safe. Former Shameless writer Ian Kershaw’s script is solid but dabbles in cliché. The tonal lightness is odd considering the origins of the project as a BBC Two drama, whereas this feels like a movie simultaneously aiming itself at some children, talking down to all of them, and excluding others.
There’s a greater film in there somewhere, with greater control over its dynamics in volume and tone, but as it stands Castles In The Sky is a pleasant feature that feels destined to divert attention over the holidays, and possibly encourage more children to buy electronics start-up kits. There are definitely far worse outcomes for movies of unfulfilled promise.
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