Edinburgh Jamie Neish

Edinburgh 2019: Astronaut review

★★★☆☆

Richard Dreyfuss stars in Astronaut, Shelagh McLeod feature film debut, in which she also doubles up as screenwriter. It’s a low-key affair that makes its World Premiere at the Edinburgh International Film Festival.

In many ways, it has the look and feel of a TV drama, which is not necessarily a bad thing. Dreyfuss plays Angus, a retired civil engineer with a love of the stars. Recently widowed, Angus has moved in with his daughter, Molly (Krista Bridges), while his house is sold to pay off the debts left by his wife when she inadvertently purchased a donkey farm in the late stages of her illness.

With threats of a move into a retirement home, forcefully made by Molly’s husband (Lyriq Bent), Angus sees one last hope when a competition is announced to send one lucky winner into space on the first-ever passenger flight above the atmosphere. He lies about his age in order to enter and is whittled down to the final twelve. But when he spots safety concerns while at the launch site being interviewed, he decides to speak up, which may come at a cost.

It’s an interesting concept, though MacLeod’s script spends too much time on Molly’s unsettled home life and less on Angus’ reach for the stars. It means that the drama surrounding Angus’s last-ditch effort never quite takes off, instead left to bubble in the background until the last act, where everyone – family and newly found retirement home friends included – rally around Angus with a belief in his concerns. In this last stretch, the film more assuredly finds its feet, and the urgency with which Angus must convince the flight organisers to halt proceedings before a terrible accident happens perpetuates offscreen.

The film is competently shot, with a particular focus from McLeod on making the stars seem so far out of reach that the viewers have little hope in a satisfying conclusion for Angus. But the whole thing feels somewhat muted and cluttered, meandering its way along until it catches fire and sprints to a heart-warming finale. The acting from Dreyfuss is endearing. The loss of his partner in life is felt, much in the way he clutches to the hope of fulfilling his dream in the hopes of being reunited – at least in spirit – with the love of his life.

Bridges and Bent provide decent support, even if their trivial marital woes detract from the main plot, while Richie Lawrence as grandson Barney is a welcome match for Dreyfuss; his infectious enthusiasm for space encouraging Angus to throw caution to the wind and do what feels right, rather than focusing on what those his age should be doing. Astronaut is a sweet film that could have done with more fire under its belly earlier on.

The full EIFF programme can be viewed at edfilmfest.org.uk.

Jamie Neish | @JamieNeish