We now think of ballooning as a quaint enterprise - the kind of thing you do at dawn to catch the sunrise. Yet in the early days of exploring the heavens, it was a daring and often dangerous enterprise, where explorers submitted themselves to the unknown chaos of the air. These people were explorers, and the basis for the study of meteorology was established in those early expeditions. Using Richard Holmes' book 'Falling Upwards: How We Took to the Air', director Tom Harper ('Wild Rose', 'War & Peace') and screenwriter Jack Thorne (TV's 'His Dark Materials') have crafted a mostly fictional but nonetheless thrilling adventure story set at an early intersection of science, technology and daring.
Set over the course of one day above London in 1862, 'The Aeronauts' follow ballooning pilot Amelia Rennes (Felicity Jones, 'A Monster Calls') and scientist James Glaisher (Eddie Redmayne, 'Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them') as they attempt to break the record for the highest ascent and make important scientific discoveries to help predict the weather. As they enter the upper layers of the atmosphere though, they encounter a dangerous undiscovered country, and their pursuit of knowledge and glory may come at a grave cost.
Thorne's screenplay uses James Glaishier's historical 1862 flight as its basis, but replaces his real co-pilot Henry Coxwell with the fictional Amelia, referencing the many women who pioneered balloon flight. Using the expedition as a basic structure, Thorne also diverts into flashbacks to give context for how and why Amelia and James have come together for the mission and the emotional stakes at play for them. There's no question that the main narrative of the flight itself is the stronger of the two threads, but the flashbacks, as often obvious as they are, do add extra weight and tension to their actions. In the air, Amelia has purpose and belonging, not defined by Victorian ideals of how a woman is meant to behave, and able to comprehend the tragic loss of her husband many years before on a similar mission. While she may be fictional, she's a terrific creation - fiercely intelligent and shockingly daring, bursting at the seams to prove her worth. By contrast, James is nervous and determined, desperate to prove his wild theories about weather prediction to be true and establish his place within the scientific community. Theirs is a relationship founded on mutual respect and trust, each understanding the others' motivations as the expedition unfolds, and Thorne wisely makes this respect the basis for their relationship rather than anything romantic.
This could have been a rather standard historical biopic in lesser hands, even with Thorne's strong screenplay, but under the control of Tom Harper (not to be confused with the infinitely inferior Tom Hooper), 'The Aeronauts' is a far more thrilling, nail-biting and giddying adventure film than you'd ever expect. There are so many moments in this film where I found myself sweating from the tension, writhing in my seat even at the merest visual suggestion of how incredibly high they had reached in nothing but a wicker basket. The film was created with IMAX presentation in mind, giving you some indication of how important the experience of the film was for the team behind it - so much so that Redmayne and Jones flew a real balloon to roughly 8,000 feet in order to replicate the 1862 flight. The set pieces in 'The Aeronauts' have you on the edge of your seat, not just because of how well-constructed they are, but the manner in which cinematographer George Steel keeps you constantly aware of height and space around them. Where the flashbacks have a stately, almost dull period quality to them, the flight sequences are shot with tremendous and often unforgiving immediacy, instantly re-establishing tension and milking it for all its worth, each set piece escalating further than the last, placing Amelia in particular in impossible situations that require every ounce of bravery and ingenuity she has. Enormous credit must also go to the flawless visual effects, crafting images of often beautiful peril. To be honest, the experience of watching 'The Aeronauts' was such an exhausting and intense one, even on a traditional cinema screen, that watching it on an IMAX screen might have killed me.
'The Aeronauts' is a far more thrilling, nail-biting and giddying adventure film than you'd ever expect.
As tremendous as the execution often is, much of the heart of the film lies in the terrific chemistry between Jones and Redmayne. This was also clear in 'The Theory of Everything', but that lacklustre film never found a way to properly capitalise on it. 'The Aeronauts' makes up for that just by placing them in a small space in insane circumstances and giving them something to do. Each character plays into the best aspects of each of their qualities as an actor, and while they (much like the film) never find their feet in the flashbacks, they're a pleasure to watch together in the flight sequences. Jones in particular not only has to deliver an emotionally resonant performance but a physically demanding one, with Amelia comprehending circumstances that would drive any ordinary person (including myself) mad.
There's little groundbreaking about 'The Aeronauts', but that isn't to diminish what an excellent and genuinely thrilling experience it is. At its best, it's 'Gravity' in a hot air balloon, a nail-biting and awe-inspiring adventure of human beings pitted against the ferocity of the elements. Tom Harper has done a sterling job elevating Jack Thorne's screenplay and imbuing it with tremendous tension. Even with its faults, 'The Aeronauts' knows exactly what kind of film it needs to be and does so with great aplomb. If you can see it on the big screen, don't miss the chance. Those set pieces deserve to be seen on as big a screen as possible.