The Aeronauts. 2019
Directed by Tom Harper
Starring Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones, Tom Courtenay, Tim McInnerny, Phoebe Fox, Vincent Pérez, Himesh Patel, Anne Reid, Rebecca Front, and Robert Glenister
Pilot Amelia Wren (Felicity Jones) and scientist James Glaisher (Eddie Redmayne) find themselves in an epic fight for survival while attempting to make discoveries in a hot air balloon.
In an age where cinema is endlessly fascinated by space exploration (it seems there is at least one major awards player a year centered on astronauts), The Aeronauts is refreshing. It may hit some of the same emotional beats as those other movies and occasionally adheres to the standard biopic formula, but discovery regarding the sky, and more specifically, the determination to uncover enough scientific research to begin predicting the weather, does put a fresh perspective a storytelling path routinely traveled.
Directed by Tom Harper (his second feature of the year, also responsible for the outstanding British country music drama Wild Rose which boasted a breakthrough performance from Jessie Buckley), The Aeronauts hones in on James Glaisher, a dorky researcher type (Eddie Redmayne has nailed the art of imitating a nerd, and gets to once again show off his talent when it comes to physical challenges, which won him an Oscar as Stephen Hawking) living in 1860s London that is ostracized by his peers for his beliefs that precipitation can be studied and understood. So he enlists the help of a widowed daredevil pilot named Amelia (Felicity Jones plays the fictional character, marking the second biopic the stars have headed alongside one another) for both her aeronautical prowess and a worthy gas balloon for the precarious journey.
Both individuals have their own reasons for the aerial expedition that they try to mask from one another. James is a bit simple to pinpoint; he genuinely does want to alter the course of history and stand for something, but he also becomes consumed by the ambition due to the way he has been treated by his colleagues. He does have a supportive friend (Yesterday‘s Himesh Patel) briefly seen as a way to elaborate on the mindset of James. Meanwhile, Amelia presents herself as an entertainer and crowdpleaser to those eager to see a hot air balloon take off with intentions of going higher than no one ever has before. Not only that, but she is so committed to showmanship that it almost feels intentionally out of character; Amelia is actually rather unlikeable from the get-go, especially considering one of her tricks is tossing a dog out of the balloon while airborne with an automated parachute. The dog is not harmed, but it was still endangered (normally I don’t even care about these things). Her overjoyed happiness is a façade.
As the two continue to ascend and inevitably clash regarding when to start looking out for the safety of their lives and decrease in altitude, there are flashback segments delving more into how and why each of them signed up for such a potentially dangerous journey. Amelia is still grieving the tragic loss of her husband (a hot air balloon accident that hangs over everything these characters do like a cloud in itself), eventually feeling that embarking on this quest could be the solution. Nevertheless, they confront one another about their true desires and fears, with the chemistry of Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones from The Theory of Everything still intact. They are actually even better here, still given cliché inspirational fair but without heaps of cloying melodrama. Replacing that aspect is, unfortunately, about five different scenes where characters self-aggrandize what they are trying to accomplish, which is pretty extraordinary, to be fair, but it’s not long before one wants to yell “we get the point” at the screen.
It’s not a spoiler to say that the two break the height record, ascending way too high for the human body to properly function. James begins to gradually lose his sanity and all sense of reason, insisting on going even further upward. Frostbitten and barely able to breathe, the situation for both of them goes from surviving the weather to surviving the perilous descent. With that comes more than one breathtaking sequence of Amelia scaling the frozen balloon itself, near collisions, and a hold your breath vertigo-inducing thrill ride. Fortunately, the excitement also contains substance considering the goodwill the character development builds up over the first hour.
It also must be stressed that the sound design is incredible (keep in mind, this is not even a review of the IMAX version); you feel the pummeling of the wind, the frigid temperature, and every painful burst of sudden contact against the balloon. Likewise, the score from Steven Price (especially during the life-threatening third act) amplifies the urgency and danger of the proceedings. The music might not be remarkable as a whole, but certain passages definitely stick out. It’s not just about the will to live, though, as there is also a radiant sight of plentiful butterflies and gorgeous views looking down on London itself. For what has to have been only a moderately-sized budget, the visual effects are tightly constructed.
It’s rare that adult-oriented dramas or biopics necessitate a theatrical experience, but The Aeronauts deserves such a watch. Tom Harper and everyone involved are most likely aware that the narrative is fairly by the numbers, so they inject it with terrific acting and a pulse-pounding climax that is better constructed than what can be found in most actual blockbusters. The Aeronauts doesn’t reach the stars, but settling for the clouds is not bad at all.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, friend me on Facebook, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, check out my personal non-Flickering Myth affiliated Patreon, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com