Gillies Mackinnon, Scottish director of THE GRASS ARENA and THE SMALL FACES always seems like a lovely guy when I’ve glimpsed him, but his films never quite came together for me, and his new one, CASTLES IN THE SKY, in which Eddie Izzard invents radar and wins the Battle of Britain, actually made me angry. The story of Scottish scientist Robert Watt Watson, it covers some interesting scientific ground and manages to make the simple explanations of how stuff works both credible and absorbing. Everything else about it struck me as unimaginative and tired. The script is full of expository “As you know…” moments in which characters not only tell each other things they already should be aware of, but announce it to us in advance. An end title, if you unscramble the syntax, seems to be saying that the Battle of Britain was the Luftwaffe’s finest hour. Laura Fraser from Breaking Bad plays Izzard’s wife — she first worked for Mackinnon as a teenager, and she’s Scottish, so it makes sense that he’d think of her, but he doesn’t have a role to offer her. We’ve all seen the movies where the wife is upset because her husband is too wrapped up in his work — they do not compel our interest, and those scenes (think of Sissy Spacek in JFK, if you can even remember her) are a drag, because there’s a character who is actually trying to persuade the protagonist not to do the things we want to see. Even in Breaking Bad, where the scenes are well written and the wife-persuader-character is morally in the right, audiences hated Skylar because she was trying to halt the story. The mean characters who made things happen, like Laura Fraser’s ice queen, were enjoyable and popular.
Then there’s the filmmaking, or lack of it. A low-grade TV-ish mess of random coverage; colorized stock footage of Spitfires; what looks like a photograph of Whitehall, pasted in as an establishing shot (“Establishing shots are a waste of time.” ~ B. DePalma); trumped-up rivalries with nasty professors and politicos; supremely unconvincing Churchill impression by a famously tall, thin actor (Tim McInnerny).
Izzard is quite good — nice Scottish accent, an attempt at suggesting dotty charm and eccentric genius, but the camera never holds on him long enough or wide enough to let him introduce any real behaviour. And we certainly never believe the marriage. The movie is short, but feels endless because, ironically, there’s no air in it. Consequence of a low budget, for sure, but also, unforgivably, a low level of creative enthusiasm.
Edinburgh International Film festival wasn’t wrong to show the movie: there’s a lot of love for Izzard here and the film has strong Scottish credentials and the movie sold out immediately. Maybe they were wrong to show it again during the Best of the Fest? But again, it sold out, I’m sure. And I don’t blame the audience: the combination of Izzard and an intriguing subject matter sounded interesting. It SHOULD have been interesting. You have to blame the filmmakers.