“Making the invisible visible” is the objective that Scottish physicist Robert Watson-Watt repeatedly claims to pursue in “Castles in the Sky.” It’s also what Gillies MacKinnon’s staid but affable biopic seeks to do for its human subject, placing a soft spotlight on a little-portrayed figure whose greatest innovation — radar technology — is so essential as to be easily taken for granted. Focusing on Watson-Watt’s collaboration with the British air ministry prior to the outbreak of the Second World War, this blandly crafted BBC production counts on star Eddie Izzard’s warm eccentricity to animate dry material; bound for television screens at home, the Edinburgh fest premiere will raise only modest ancillary airwaves elsewhere.
The film’s opening credit sequence, with its typewritten text and bloodstained archive images of Nazi activity, establishes that we’re very much in war-by-numbers territory here, and some distance from the sensory specificity of MacKinnon’s 1997 WWI drama, “Regeneration.” Given the visibly limited budget, archival footage provides the sole suggestion of a world on the brink of war; the action is otherwise confined mostly to Watson-Watt’s daintily appointed home and dusty government chambers, where gray-suited ministers pore over the best strategy for combatting Germany’s inevitable attack.
In 1935, while old-school Whitehall bigwig Lindemann (David Hayman) advocates that “attack is the best form of defense,” his peers conclude that Britain is ill equipped to combat the Nazi air force head-on, and call on the country’s leading engineers to find a preventative alternative. Nothing sticks until Watson-Watt — then employed by the Meteorological Office — proposes a then-radical method of using radio waves to locate distant enemy planes; he admits the idea is riddled with unknown factors, but the aerial committee reluctantly declares it the best of a bad bunch, and recruits the plainspoken Scot to head up a top-secret development mission.
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What ensues is less a flag-waving celebration of British resolve than a study of internal class conflict within the British war effort, as the ministers’ skepticism over Watson-Watt’s suitability for the project stems to a considerable degree from his hearty accent and lack of Oxbridge education. Much to their chagrin, Watson-Watt rejects their offer to recruit a team of top physicists to assist him in his endeavors, choosing instead to work with his existing meteorologist colleagues — like him, regional university graduates dismissed by Whitehall brass as “little weathermen.” It’s a valid and still-resonant angle, though the film could have made its point without the barn-broad caricaturization of Watson-Watt’s Welsh and Northern assistants. (Not that Tim McInnerny’s barking, cartoonish Winston Churchill is any more credible.)
The script paints Watson-Watt himself in similarly broad strokes: Distracted, disheveled and arriving at his ministry interview in a cloud of disorganized paperwork, he’s every inch the bumbling academic stereotype. Happily, Izzard’s take is a little more nuanced. The flamboyant comic is a counterintuitive choice for the role, but isn’t working entirely against his heightened instincts: There’s a sense here that Watson-Watt himself knew the value of performance, consciously slipping into a mad-scientist routine when it suited him or others. Izzard’s unflappable charisma carries the character through even his most underwritten stretches, chief among them his touching but one-note relationship with wife Margaret (Laura), from whom he struggled to keep the entire project a secret.
This “Beautiful Mind” dynamic between put-upon genius and long-suffering spouse is one of many ways in which “Castles in the Sky” adheres timidly to biopic convention — its televisually tasteful conformity extending to all tech departments, from Mark Russell’s sugary score to Gill Horn’s elegant but unworn costumes. Watson-Watt may stress the importance of “free thinkers, rule-breakers and men without ties,” but this tweedy portrait never undoes its top button.