Writers: Tom Harper and Jack Thorne
Director: Tom Harper
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
When Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones joined forces in 2014 for The Theory of Everything, it was Redmayne who had the best of it, winning an Oscar for his portrayal of Stephen Hawking. In Tom Harper’s new film The Aeronauts it is Jones who takes the laurels with a tale of female derring-do, scientific endeavour and bravery above the clouds as two unlikely companions set out to discover the skies in a hot air balloon.
Scientist James Glaisher has a theory about weather that his Royal Society colleagues refuse to believe. To prove his notions about forecasting and air currents he needs to fly higher than anyone has done before in order to take a series of readings, so he turns to hot air balloon pilot Amelia Wren who agrees to guide his record-breaking attempt. But Amelia is haunted by the death of her husband and above the clouds uncharted dangers await.
Harper’s CGI drama is visually stunning, with cinematography by George Steel that fills the Victorian street scenes with vibrant colour while creating the peaceful calm of endless clouds and stormy chaos as the central partnership battle the elements. And Harper is trying to direct a disaster movie so there are plenty of crisis points in which Amelia primarily must rescue the balloon from lashing rain, freezing ice and windy chaos, allowing Jones to show her action skills as she swings to ropes, scales the outside of the balloon and hangs upside down as often as possible.
Yet there is very little plot or real characterisation holding Harper’s film together, using dramatic flashback from the basket to impose the necessary backstories on the character. The trouble is we already know what is going to happen so when Amelia prevaricates over whether to help James or if they’ll fund the contraption in time, the drama is entirely undermined because we already know they did, hence the flashback.
Similarly, some of the film’s potentially interesting questions are left entirely unanswered; how did they fund the balloon and logistically arrange a big launch ceremony; in their attempt to fly higher than anyone has before, how exactly did they achieve that – was the balloon a different shape or material than previous attempts or is there some science in the management of the flight or the particular weather condition that day which allowed them to do it? The film consistently misses such opportunities to impress the audience not just with the view and the achievement but with how it was done.
The entirely fictional Amelia feels like a very modern creation making speeches about independence and determination that jar a little in Jack Thorne and Harper’s screenplay which tries a little too hard to make her the hero as she rejects the normal expectations of her sister for life in the air. Nonetheless Jones grasps the character with both hands, suggesting all the grit and determination that keeps them alive, and while the overly emotional backstory becomes a little repetitive it’s still great to see a version of a female action hero who doesn’t have to wear tiny shorts.
Redmayne has relatively little to do except be charming and slightly bumbling, although an eleventh-hour bit of action sees him finally take charge. For a first-timer, James shows no signs of disorientation, fear or air sickness after take-off but by the time both characters ascend to new heights everyone is prettily frosted and just what James was trying to prove and how barely matters.
A rousing ending will be no surprise, one remarkably free of frostbite, hypothermia, septicaemia or any kind of broken bones that their adventure should entail in Victorian England, but the visuals are worthy of the big screen even if the story deflates rapidly. Partially based on a true story, The Aeronauts avoids some of the period drama clichés and there’s a good chemistry between Jones and Redmayne, but the film runs out of hot air pretty quickly.
The BFI London Film Festival runs from 2 October to 13 October