Aeronauts, The (USA/UK, 2019)December 03, 2019
For as long as humans have existed, the bravest of their number has sought to explore boundaries and expand vistas. Whether the New World, the Arctic and Antarctic, the peaks of great mountains, the bottom of the ocean, or the vastness of space, human beings have unceasingly endeavored to extend their grasp. The Aeronauts, loosely based on the record-breaking 1862 balloon flight of pioneering meteorologist James Glaisher (Eddie Redmayne), offers a window into an era when ascending into the clouds was as amazing and dangerous a feat as traveling to the moon would be a century later.
In telling Glaisher’s story, director Tom Harper and writer Jack Thorne have made significant alterations to the historical record in order to make their film gender-neutral. When Glaiser accomplished the ascent, he was accompanied by frequent collaborator and co-pilot Henry Tracey Coxwell. For the film, Coxwell has been replaced by the fictional Amelia Wren (Felicity Jones), who not only takes on Coxwell’s role but pays homage to various female balloonists often ignored by history. It’s perhaps no surprise that Amelia’s backstory, created from whole-cloth by the filmmakers, is more interesting than Glaisher’s. Indeed, when one considers their respective roles in the basket, Amelia emerges as the stronger and more important individual.
Each of the main characters has a reason for embarking upon the historic journey into the skies. For Glaisher, it’s a desire to validate his chosen field of meteorology – a “science” that is mocked by some for its lack of precision. For Amelia, it’s an attempt to put a tragedy behind her – the death of her husband, an aeronaut who gave his life so she could survive an adventure gone wrong. Glaisher and Amelia’s relationship is initially frosty but, even as the air temperature grows chilly, things between them warm up. They endure hardships and dangers – an unexpected storm that threatens to send the balloon careening out of control and, later, a stuck gas valve that resists their attempts to loosen it.
The Aeronauts develops in near-real time with about 70% of the action taking place within the basket and most of the rest of it either following secondary characters on the ground or providing flashbacks to flesh out Glaisher and Amelia’s backstories. Structurally, there’s nothing remarkable about The Aeronauts. Its strengths come from an ability to coax the viewer into understanding the remarkable beauty and danger of the venture. There’s one scene, with the balloon rising silently above the clouds that recalls how tenuous the trip’s survivability is. Another, with a flotilla of butterflies, creates a surreal sense of discovery. There are flashes of the existentialism captured by Alfonso Cuaron in Gravity, although the Oscar-nominated 2013 film was in most ways superior to this one.
For Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones, this is a return engagement – the two were previously paired in 2015’s The Theory of Everything, which earned her an Oscar nomination and him a victory. The chemistry they worked on in the earlier film bolsters the nonverbal aspects of their relationship here. The Aeronauts isn’t a romance and at no point does it hint at a romantic attachment between Glaisher and Amelia (in real life, he was married, although apparently not in this movie universe), but a mutual respect and friendship grows between them.
Of the two, Jones has the stronger role – one that is more physically and emotionally demanding. Of course, having starred in Rogue One, she’s no stranger to the kinds of death-defying acts required of her character – climbing ropes up the side of a balloon with frost-bitten fingers, for example. The Aeronauts includes some white-knuckle moments, nearly all of which put Amelia in danger while Glaisher is a bystander (or unconscious, depending on the circumstances).
Overall, this is a well-acted peek back in history to an era when scientific and engineering techniques currently taken for granted were in their pioneering stages, impelled forward by humanity’s insatiable desire to explore and conquer new vistas.
Aeronauts, The (USA/UK, 2019)
Cast: Felicity Jones, Eddie Redmayne
Screenplay: Jack Thorne, based on a story by Jack Thorne & Tom Harper
Cinematography: George Steel
Music: Steven Price
U.S. Distributor: Amazon Studios