There’s an unquenchable irresistibility to the visual prospect of an Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones screen reunion, set in the basket of a hot air balloon some 37,000 feet above the ground. A cinematic match made in heaven, which happens to be set in the heavens. Maybe it is the case that neither Redmayne nor Jones will feature in next February’s awards conversations – as they did following 2014 hit The Theory of Everything – but in the imaginations of willing audiences, they can only soar higher and higher.
Based very loosely on true events, The Aeronauts reimagines the early history of meteorology as a whirlwind feat of derring do, demonstrative of humanity’s capacity both for immense courage and wide eyed adventure when driven by the will to live. It is the work of a director and writer ascending towards the very apex of their respective careers. The former is Tom Harper, recently of Wild Rose and War & Peace renown, while the latter, Jack Thorne, boasts Harry Potter’s stage antics and the BBC’s acclaimed His Dark Materials adaptation among his oeuvre. Next he will pen Damien Chazelle’s hotly anticipated Netflix series. Here, Thorne brings subtle narrative weaving and a lovely turn of phrase: ‘We are creatures of the sky and have no respect for land locked clocks.’ Harper, running with such opportune writing, masters his camera with furiously engaging energy, allowing George Steel’s gorgeous cinematography to shine in all the right places. The partnership brings joy, heartbreak, excitement and deepest wanderlust.
Redmayne is the film’s foot in fact. He plays little known – to mass minds at least – scientist James Glaisher, a founding father of both the Meteorological and Aeronautical societies of Great Britain. Jones is his fictional accomplice Amelia Wren, a likely more enticing cinematic presence than Glaisher’s actual collaborator Henry Tracey Coxwell. Glaisher and Coxwell really did float to record heights in the name of science, with many of the film’s highlight scenes descendent of truthful events, even if the latter was not a daredevil pilot holding a tragic secret. Regardless of the liberties taken, Jones excels in her cartwheeling, balloon wielding role – as does Redmayne in his more muted part – bringing enough empathy to feel entirely plausible: ‘Your reputation is built on paper and my reputation is built on screams.’
Wren is empowering too. Note that the film is titled in the plural. Ensuing, no matter how artificially, Hollywood’s relationship with the great men of history, Thorne’s script pulls no punches in forefronting the bravery, intelligence and adaptability of his heroine. Amalgamated, perhaps, from history’s true women of the sky – Sophie Blanchard, Margaret Graham and Amelia Earhart among them – Wren is the film’s dominant force and needs no saving. It reminds of Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity in this respect. As for Jones, she shares an easy and wholly watchable chemistry with Redmayne but has no qualms in making this her film. Supporting roles, for the likes of Tom Courtney, Anne Reid and Himish Patel, fare less well in sketchier writing but are nevertheless well played. A strong eye for detail in the set design certainly makes up for more middling ground based action. Fleeting flashbacks recall the lead up to take off but add little that is not better achieved in the confinement of Wren’s balloon basket.
Indeed, there can be little doubt that The Aeronauts is at its best when sky high. Here, the heart and mouth are as one. Breathlessly exciting episodes transport viewers through the deadly wrath of a storm to the serene beauty of migrating butterflies. Life of Pi is an easy comparison. Above the clouds, Thorne’s characters breathe with greater clarity and a more tangible emotional honesty. The finale, though predictable, works well because Jones’ Wren and Redmayne’s Glaisher feel worth rooting for. It’s a charming watch.