Nothing sets the tone better for a movie than a bit of historical revisionism. The Aeronauts, starring Eddie Redmayne, follows the real-life exploits of James Glaisher as he embarks on a perilous adventure in the name of scientific advancement. Where the film departs from reality is in Glaisher’s co-pilot, actual companion Henry Coxwell is replaced by fictional hot air balloon pilot, Amelia Wren (played by Felicity Jones).
Armed with this knowledge before entering the cinema, I went in fully aware that I was in for more melodrama than meteorology.
The opening scenes establish Glaisher’s goal fairly effectively; in the face of heavy scepticism from his colleagues, he intends to fly higher than ever before in order to collect ground-breaking data to support his predictability of weather theory. However, aside from the initial set up, and a few brief moments of Glaisher checking his thermometer, the film largely focuses on the relationship and recent history of the two main characters, with science very much taking a back seat.
Screen time is split fairly evenly between our 2 protagonists as we follow them both in the past and the present. Redmayne’s James Glaisher is contending with his obnoxious colleagues, as well as coming to terms with a parent in the early stages of dementia, and Jones’ Amelia Wren is dealing with the loss of her husband whilst wrestling with the decision of whether or not to strap on her flight goggles again.
And this is essentially the heart of the film. Redmayne and Jones have fantastic chemistry, and it’s their budding friendship that really holds your interest through the 1 hour 40-minute run time. Instead of a science-heavy biopic, what we actually get is a surprisingly charming tale about companionship, triumph over adversity and our innate drive to explore the unknown.
Redmayne’s likeable yet dogmatic Glaisher learns the beauty behind the science through Wren’s wonder of the natural world. And Jones’s Wren finds purpose in life through Glaisher’s unwavering determination to make the world a better place.
Having worked together previously on The Theory of Everything, for which Redmayne won a best actor Oscar, they appear to quickly pick up where they left off, in turn generating a fully believable dynamic. What really works here is that the relationship doesn’t rely on the traditional romance story line, it’s almost Victorian in how understated and reserved it all is. This serves the purpose of making the characters, their relationship and the journey they embark upon together all the more memorable.
Where character development is concerned, it’s not all good news though. Both protagonists have extensively developed backstories which are played out intermittently throughout the film. With Glaisher and Wren being equal partners in their heroic adventure, I can understand why the writers did this. Unfortunately, however, in a bid to develop both characters equally, the narrative ultimately suffers, feeling a little sluggish and unfocused in places.
With a plot centred around a perilous journey, the film also seems to lack a certain amount of peril for most of the run time, it’s very much a slow burner. However, considering the subject matter, I can really appreciate the pacing, whether intentional or not. We get a gradual build up in back story as the balloon ascends, we get cathartic revelation for both characters as the balloon reaches its goal, and we get an action packed, fast-paced descent during the climax.
And it’s this spectacular set piece at the finale that really brings the film to life. As much as I enjoyed the reserved, relationship drama, the film never quite gets out of third gear until the end. But director Tom Harper’s dramatic instincts kick in at just the right moment, providing us with an extremely exciting and tense descent to Earth. The historical revisionism plays perfectly into the Harper’s hands here too. With Wren being completely fictional, and thereby having a fate unknown, I found myself genuinely worried about her survival.
Visually, there is some incredibly strong work on display throughout the film, the sweeping shots from the sky are outstanding. There is also a particularly memorable Life of Pi-esque scene involving a flutter of Butterflies that is genuinely stunning. This beautiful cinematography makes up for the weaker elements of the film, including a largely forgettable original soundtrack and some suspect supporting performances.
Tom Courtenay as Glaisher senior is particularly bad. Appearing to have misread his character history, instead of portraying a father in the grips of dementia, he appears to be aiming for drunken pirate channelling Jack Sparrow.
Overall, whilst not exactly doing historical justice to the birth of meteorology, the film has a lot to offer both visually and thematically. But it’s Redmayne and Jones in their second collaboration that really transform what could have been a largely innocuous entry in the 2019 calendar into to something much more memorable.
⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ½