The Aeronauts is a Victorian-era version of Cuarón’s Gravity. Yes, really. Tom Harper’s latest directorial feat is surprisingly successful in uniting the disparate tones of the British period piece and the space-bound epic. Felicity Jones and Eddie Redmayne — together again after starring opposite each other in The Theory of Everything — take to the skies to beat the record of the highest ascent in a hot air balloon. With a few tricks up its sleeves, this seemingly fluffy film stands a decent chance of winning over skeptics.
“Have you noticed it’s completely silent?” Akin to drifting through the dark void that is space, pilot Amelia Wren (Jones) and scientist James Glaisher (Redmayne) are isolated in sailing the air atop the world. Their candy-striped hot air balloon is a massive bauble, climbing higher and higher through the various layers of the atmosphere — each tier varies in charm and rage, but all are beautiful. In an early sequence, the adventuring pair are caught in a storm. Without drawing too much comparison between films and theme parks, the wet and windy fiasco is an exhilarating river rapids ride. The balloon’s basket spasms whilst a closely held camera captures the titular aeronauts’ terror. Once the weather has subdued, the pair look across a sprawling London with the same emotional weight of an astronaut staring back at our little blue planet. Their ascent is nothing short of heavenly; a chorus of angelic voices accompany the bright sunlight bouncing off of the clouds.
If the tempestuous nature of the weather didn’t present enough of a challenge, the opposed personalities of Amelia and James make things harder still. James is a calculated, yet inexperienced, scientist; Amelia is a maverick, theatrical pilot. He is dressed in a grey suit whilst she dons brightly colored frocks and a neckerchief evoking Amelia Earheart. Not only is this a refreshing swap of Hollywood’s archetypical gender roles, but it also reverses the tired ‘dead wife’ trope. Amelia — who, unlike James, is a fictitious character composed of an amalgam of historical balloon pilots — suffers post-traumatic stress from the complicated demise of her husband, famed balloon pilot Pierre (Vincent Perez), during a flight. Since the tragic accident, Amelia has spent years bound to the ground. But like Neil Armstrong in First Man, James’ offer to once again ascend comes as an opportunity to escape her earthly grief.
Amelia’s past validates her cautious approach to the mission, especially considering James’ novice status. Her prioritization of their safety soon comes into conflict with James’ fierce ambitions. He sees it as his scientific duty to prove the weather is predictable. And by establishing meteorology, he hopes to bring society a plethora of benefits. The stakes are high for him; convincing the many cynics hinges on the success of the mission.
The tiny basket that Amelia and James find themselves in is a brilliant setting to challenge the physical and emotional strength of the pair while simultaneously exploring their characters. It is a shame that writers Harper and Jack Thorne felt the need to flit between this compelling, action-packed arc and a secondary timeline that recounts the two-year-long journey of the pair coming together. The conflicts within this earlier timeline are rendered mute given that we already know the pair will embark on the mission. There is nothing accomplished by this storyline that could not have been presented during the mission.
Fortunately, Jones and Redmayne have a naturally sweet chemistry that is essential to selling this film. Although the dialogue is sometimes clunky and overly dramatic, the pair’s performances are competent and complementary. The heaviness to the speech is not atypical of British period pieces, so the target audience is unlikely to be bothered by this. The Aeronauts may struggle to get away with is its clumsy handling of gender politics. Its motives in this area are clear and admirable, but there is little subtlety to its methods save for the odd moment or two. Nonetheless, Amelia commands her craft with confidence and experience.
The Aeronauts feels like a work–in–progress. A few times the camerawork is interesting and adept, and only sometimes is the writing impactful and inspiring. The rest is either casual or cliché. But perhaps playing it safe was part of the plan. Bringing together the dissimilar styles of space epic and period piece was deliberate. Individually, these genres have found significant favor among awards voters. This is as Oscar–bait as they come, but while pandering to its target audience, The Aeronauts also finds time to meet some of our modern demands. It charmed this skeptic, so it might entice a few more, too.