'The Aeronauts': Film Review | Telluride 2019

A 19th century thrill ride.
12/6/2019

'The Theory of Everything' co-stars Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones reunite for Tom Harper's adventure-drama about a historic balloon expedition.

Just one question of apparel looms large while watching this exhilarating account of a record-setting flight by two pioneer hot air balloonists in 1862: If one were planning to ascend to the unprecedented altitude of seven miles above sea level, wouldn’t one think to bring gloves?

That aside, The Aeronauts achieves impressive elevation as a bracing and sympathetic account of two early and very different aviators who together reached literal new heights in a perilous field of endeavor. Briskly told in something very close to real time, this Amazon adventure scheduled for December release offers tension, novelty and singular characters that should please audiences keen to sample a period piece with a difference.

Reteaming five years after their initial pairing in The Theory of Everything, Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones once again set their sights on the skies, but in a rather more participatory manner. At first glance, what they set out to do has all the earmarks of a circus stunt, one in which two young English adventurers will take the trip together for different basic reasons — scientist James Glaisher (Redmayne) to advance the cause of the not yet accepted practice of meteorology and Amelia Wren (Jones) for the exciting entertainment value as well as for private purposes.

A large boisterous crowd gathers for the liftoff, which has a partisan element to it, that being to best the standing French altitude record, and the initial ascent even includes the sight of Amelia tossing her pet dog out of the aircraft by parachute. Lots of gasps and laughs all around. “Do you take anything seriously?,” James asks apprehensively. He will get his answer in due course.

But he’s right in asking, in that entertaining the crowd is hardly the reason the flight is taking place. As is conveyed in one of numerous flashbacks that not only help to explain the circumstances of the flight, but also fill out the running time beyond the one-hour duration of the voyage, James’ mission means to legitimize the study of weather to the stuffy old guard — something surprisingly considered to be not feasible or useful as recently as 160 years ago.

After all her crowd-pleasing showgirl shenanigans at the takeoff, Amelia soon shifts into a somewhat more serious gear as the large balloon, in beautifully rendered footage, sails over London and then further aloft. As we witness in further brisk flashbacks, Amelia has her own reasons for taking on this risky business, one rooted in ballooning experiences with her adventurous late husband (a very briefly glimpsed Vincent Perez). For his part, James gets a little backstory as well, not only in connection with his old academic colleagues but with his dementia-afflicted father (Tom Courtenay in a brief appearance).

The flashbacks thus provide a smidgen of personal information while allowing the flight and story to jump ahead a bit as the balloon rises gracefully into the blue and, eventually, into the clouds. To record their arrival at ever-greater altitudes, the aeronauts toss pigeons out of the basket with tags attached to them. But when, in a great if slightly morbid gag, Amelia drops another bird over the side and it drops like a rock, they know they’re achieving seriously thinner air.

In short order, the two begin to quarrel about continuing upward or heading back down. The temperature drops to five degrees, snow begins to alight on them and their ship, and any reasonable voice would suggest that they’d proved their point and reached the moment to head down.

But, no, they venture on into perilous and viscerally tense territory that not only speaks for the advisability of gloves on such frigid occasions, but calls for some heroic and exceptionally daring physical exploits. Everything leads to a quite unusual and genuinely exciting action climax.

Through it all, the filmmakers show they know exactly what they’re after and how to get there. This is an unusual, borderline eccentric story, and director Tom Harper, best known for his six-part 2016 BBC adaptation of War and Peace and the recent release Wild Rose, brings it alive with vigor and recognition of potentially wayward possibilities. Although the real-life serious purposes of Glaisher’s expeditions are acknowledged, no one is claiming that what we’re watching is actual history. But the spirit of the intertwined nature of science and spectacle extend from this sort of story clear through to the space program of a century later, and is easily digested as such.

The two stars quite capably carry the story with an abundance of energy and spirit, while the sight of the balloon and its encounter with a vast array of altitudes, weather and adverse physical conditions is splendidly conveyed for considerable suspense and wonder. As many films have shown, early aviation was a highly treacherous endeavor, and The Aeronauts, however fictionalized this account may be, nicely adds to that legacy.

Production companies: Mandeville Films, Popcorn Storm, One Shoe Films
Distributor: Amazon Studios
Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones, Phoebe Fox, Himesh Patel, Rebecca Front, Robert Glenister, Vincent Perez, Anne Reid, Tom Courtenay
Director: Tom Harper
Screenwriter: Jack Thorne; story by Tom Harper, Jack Thorne
Producers: Todd Lieberman, David Hoberman, Tom Harper
Executive producers: Jack Thorne, Richard Jewitt
Director of photography: George Steel
Production designer: Christian Huband, David Hindle
Costume designer: Alexandra Byrne
Editor: Mark Eckersley
Music: Steven Price
Casting: Julie Harkin
Venue: Telluride Film Festival

101 minutes