Directed by Tom Harper. Starring Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones, Himesh Patel, Tom Courtenay.
The Plot: 19th Century scientist James Glaisher (Eddie Redmayne) believes that the weather can be predicted through analysis of the skies and clouds. His peers mock him for his beliefs, but he presses on regardless. To test his experiments, he’ll need to ascent into the skies. This is where hot air balloonist, entertainer and widow Emilia (Felicity Jones) comes in. They make a deal to break the world record and ascend past 23,000 feet. As they go higher in her hot air balloon, James pushes Emilia to go further and further, with potentially life-threatening consequences…
The Verdict: In the year in which the 50th Anniversary of the Moon Landing has been celebrated, The Aeronauts is a reminder of the pioneering achievements of people to boldly go where no one has gone before. It’s a sky high adventure film inspired by the real-life exploits of James Glaisher, a meteorologist who in the 1860s ascended high into the skies to measure temperature and humidity in the atmosphere in order to accurately predict incoming weather. The film adds in Emilia Wren, a composite character based on several pioneering women who ventured into the skies with their hot air balloons. The result is a film that is often breathlessly exciting and tense, as we’re with these two aeronauts every step of the way. At first, they admire the beauty of the shrinking world below. Then they go higher and higher, into thinner air and freezing temperatures. It’s as much a character study though as an adventure film.
Following on from his acclaimed Wild Rose earlier this year, director Tom Harper’s script with Jack Thorne is keen to emphasise the contrasting characters of James and Emilia. James is a somewhat stuffy scientist, obsessed with his measures and gauges and frustrated with the limits of human endurance. Emilia is a more open person, happy to put on a show for an audience but also wise to the very real dangers of their ascent to 23,000 feet and beyond. This makes for some good in-the-air drama as they two come to rely on each other for survival. When the film is on the ground, it’s fairly mundane stuff about the mission and the historical backdrop – which is OK but not particularly well-developed. Where’s a historical prologue when you need one?
Perhaps sensing that weakness in the script, Harper has structured the narrative out of sequence, so the film starts in the air and flashes back at intervals to explain how these two characters got to this point. It’s sufficient enough to patch up the holes in the script, so that it doesn’t go down like a lead balloon. When the film is in the air, then it’s really in its element (or elements). Harper uses a combination of actual footage of Redmayne and Jones (re-united after The Theory Of Everything) in a hot air balloon at 8,000 feet. As the characters ascend towards the stratosphere, there’s a seamless usage of vertigo-inducing visual effects which will make your palms sweat and genuinely worry for the characters and their fates. There’s a serene beauty to these scenes too, such as an encounter with butterflies amidst the quiet solitude of the skies. See it on the biggest screen you can find like an IMAX for extra effect.
While The Aeronauts doesn’t quite soar, it reaches for the stars and makes a decent attempt to illustrate the optimism and thrill-seeking qualities of its 19th Century lead characters – not for themselves, but for the betterment of the world. While it may be perfunctory on the ground, it certainly does its job in entertaining when it’s in the air. Hold onto your popcorn and strap yourself in for one wild aeronautical ride into the great unknown, over a century before rockets and men on the moon.