Castles in the Sky is tense and heart-warming, unhindered by the difficulties inherent in creating historical drama. The fact we know the outcome in advance does not take anything away from what is a fascinating and well-told story.
Starting in 1935 as the ruling class in Whitehall panic about Hitler’s rise to power and his rapid arms production, the pace is set in the opening scene and manages to easily sustain itself throughout the full 90 minutes. Whilst the Air Ministry want to secretly create a ‘death ray’ (a comic notion if they weren’t serious), meteorologist Robert Watson-Watt (Eddie Izzard) suggests a defensive technology instead; a device using radio waves to locate enemy aircraft and give advance warning of when they are on the attack. In the absence of any realistic way of making the ‘death ray’ happen – one scientist essentially pitches re-inventing the kettle to boil pilots in their cockpits – Watson-Watt is eventually given the go ahead to create his vision.
In the lead role, Izzard is instantly likeable and an example of great casting. He plays Watson-Watt with exactly the right balance of intelligent focus and distraction. In each scene there is the distinct impression that he is internally working through his project, always thinking. The impact on Watson-Watt’s marriage caused by his determination to get radar working is gloriously underplayed. While we perhaps don’t see enough of Laura Fraser’s (Breaking Bad) Margaret, it is a refreshing change to maintain focus on the task at hand without descending into melodrama regarding her abandonment and the eventual dissolution of their marriage. It feels instead like realistic collateral damage for the sake of the larger mission.
Writer Ian Kershaw underscores the urgency of the project wonderfully and does not allow his characters to deviate for long. This, coupled with the effective use of archive footage, helps to underpin the metronomic drive of the story and the inevitable march to war. That is not to say Castles in the Sky does not deliver emotionally, just that it is pragmatic. If Karl Davies’ sincere portrayal of Skip Wilkins helps to bond the team and humanises the scientific endeavour, then the interference of Establishment figures like Lindemann (David Hayman) and an albeit more supportive Albert Percivale Rowe (Julian Rhind-Tutt) present a very real threat to their work, one we genuinely believe may cause the project to fail.
This particular aspect of the film is the one that holds special resonance: the Establishment versus the extraordinary ‘ordinary’ people. Initially, Rowe wants Watson-Watt’s team to consist of Oxford graduates by virtue of their breeding rather any discernible talent. The point is astutely made that the entrenched Oxford and Whitehall elite would never have come up with the ingenious solution to the Luftwaffe provided by the team of ‘freethinkers’ from less affluent backgrounds.
The idea of Watson-Watt as an outsider persists even to the eve of the Battle of Britain when he is coldly turned away from the control room, never given the opportunity to witness his creation at its finest hour. In Castles in the Sky, he is offered a fond and grateful telling of his legacy. It is a story that is told with passion and care, certainly deserving of a large audience to increase awareness of the obvious debt we owe.
Contributed by Jane Harrison