When I first heard about The Aeronauts, I thought… what the hell is an aeronaut? For whatever reason, it never occurred to me that before astronauts in space, there were aeronauts in the skies, pioneering the field of meteorology. It’s easy to forget there was a time when the very suggestion of weather prediction was viewed in the same category as fortune-telling and magic. This notion—that once upon a time, not so long ago, clouds were uncharted territory—has an undeniable charm which Tom Harper captures in this mostly forgettable, but visually stunning, work of whimsy.
Loosely based on the exploits of English hot air balloonists James Glashier and Henry Tracey Coxwell, The Aeronauts keeps Glashier in the mix but swaps out his co-pilot for a fictional daredevil named Amelia Rennes. In 1862, these two pioneers (Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones of The Theory of Everything) set out to collect weather data from record heights. At first, there’s a bit of a romcom dynamic going on: he’s the stick-in-the-mud, she’s the bubbly sprite. Before takeoff, James triple-checks his measurements and routinely checks his pocket watch until Amelia finally cartwheels onto the scene in ruffles and feathers, tossing glitter and small dogs into the air like the ultimate hype woman.
But above the clouds, as harsh and unpredictable conditions force the two to reckon with their own flaws and limitations, we see our first impressions were incorrect. Amelia is certainly no—hold the cringe—manic pixie dream girl meant to spice up James’ droll, tweedy existence. In fact, Amelia is the rationalist, while James is blinded by ambition to the point of recklessness. By providing flashbacks throughout their perilous journey, the film gives these characters more depth and makes it clear that James and Amelia’s battle against the elements is part of a much larger struggle with their pasts.
Well, that’s true in Amelia’s case, anyway. We discover that a traumatic event almost made her quit aeronautics for good. The details behind this tragedy are not as clever or surprising as their slow revelation would suggest, but that’s okay, because we’re more concerned with how it impacted Amelia. Jones shows this beautifully in her complex portrayal of a woman trying to restore her adventurous spirit after it was suddenly snuffed out by guilt and fear.
But in the case of James, there’s not a whole lot there. He’s got a textbook “prove them wrong” backstory that effectively cements us in a pre-meteorology era, but doesn’t do much to the heartstrings. Naysayer colleagues laugh him out of scientific gatherings, and his mother and senile father have little hope for his aspirations. Redmayne delivers a fine performance, but his character just isn’t steeped with the same magic as Jones’ character. But I have to say, at least James is given this narrative rather than Amelia; diminishing her story to that of a woman trying to prove she can fly just as well as a man would have been predictable and a waste. Sexism is, of course, addressed, but it doesn’t consume her entire character arc.
Not only does Amelia get most of the film’s emotional beats, but she also wins in the action category. And, while I already find much of The Aeronauts slipping my mind, one sequence has stuck: at the film’s climax, Amelia must scale the frost-covered, 80-foot-tall balloon to the very top as it drifts 35,000 feet above the earth. Jones is absolutely relentless here and, through George Steel’s cinematography, we can practically feel the raw, frostbitten skin of her hands each time they grab that rope.
While the performances are strong and the action sequences sometimes spectacular, The Aeronauts’ script struggles to stay afloat. Its flashback-heavy narrative structure tends to flatline and kept me from becoming fully invested in the story. The film’s writer, Jack Thorne, has quite an eclectic resume; his TV credits include Skins and Shameless, two shows that would surely make this movie blush and tug at its Victorian collar. He also wrote the stage play for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and has dabbled in more classically sentimental fare like the 2017 Jacob Tremblay vehicle Wonder. This film probably falls somewhere between those last two; a little fantastical (the fantasy of science, that is) and very sincere.
Verdict: 2.5 out of 5 stars
The Aeronauts is a sweet ode to intellectual curiosity and the bravery required to pursue it, but it’s mostly quaint when it should be larger-than-life. That’s not to say nobody will enjoy it, as older audiences will especially catch some thrills on this lofty ride. If you already know this is your thing, then you’ll probably be satisfied.