“The Aeronauts” is what the British once called a “ripping good yarn” – the sort of adventure story that appeared in the pages of Jules Verne and Robert Louis Stevenson.
It’s also the sort of film that Hollywood has largely abandoned in favor of superheroes and galaxies far far away in recent years, which means it is arriving at the perfect time.
The film is light as a feather and just as insubstantial. It’s part history, part fiction and suspenseful enough to make you want to bite your fingernails.
It is, to borrow another British expression, a “corker” of a film – an audience-pleaser from start to finish.
Academy Award winner Eddie Redmayne plays the real-life hero of this adventure yarn: British scientist James Glaisher, a pioneer in the field of meteorology who, in 1862, took a hot-air balloon higher into the atmosphere than any man before him (roughly 37,000 feet or five miles, we’re told).
When the film starts, Glaisher is struggling to be taken seriously by the scientific community.
“You are no closer to predicting the movements of the weather than the movements of a frog in a jar,” snivels Glaisher’s scientific rival (Tim McInnerny).
What Glaisher needs is a balloonist, an “aeronaut” who can help him soar higher than ever before so that he can analyze the atmosphere, the magnetic field and the solar spectrum -all in the hopes of being able to predict the weather and, potentially, save thousands of lives.
Glaisher finds his aeronaut in the realm of fiction. Amelia Rennes (Felicity Jones) is scriptwriter Jack Thorne’s greatest invention – a dashing adventurer, a grieving widow and a showwoman who would put Phineas Fogg to shame. She’s the kind of person who throws a dog out of an airborne balloon- with a parachute of course- in order to get a few laughs.
Thorne’s script gets a lot of mileage from the love/hate relationship between Glaisher, ever the stodgy traditionalist, and Rennes, the devil-may-care adventurer who has little need for science, thank you very much.
It’s worth remembering that this is not the first time Redmayne and Jones have been paired together. In their previous collaboration, the Stephen Hawking biopic “Theory of Everything”, both received Academy Award nominations with Redmayne netting a win. They are both pros, in other words, and their easy chemistry helps the film achieve liftoff even before Glaisher’s balloon does.
But when that balloon does lift off, that’s when the fun starts in earnest. Director Tom Harper stages one visually stunning set piece after another – from a vicious thunderstorm to an encounter with millions of golden butterflies. And those are just two of the early highlights.
As thankful as I am to streaming services like Amazon Prime, Netflix and Disney+ for taking chances on movies that would never get released theatrically, I can’t help but mourn that most audiences will not see “The Aeronauts” (rated PG-13 for some peril and thematic elements) on a screen larger than their own TV. “The Aeronauts”, like “Gravity” before it, deserves to be seen on the largest screen possible in order to fully appreciate the visual grandeur that Harper and cinematographer George Steel have conjured. This is one of the most visually stunning films of 2019. Don’t you dare watch it on your smartphone.
The balloon sequences are so thrilling that you wish Harper hadn’t felt the need to rely on frequent flashbacks to Glaisher and Rennes’ lives on earth, where he often loses any momentum gained in the thrilling flight sequences and slows things down to a glacial (or is that Glaishal?) pace.
Great British character actors like Himesh Patel, Tom Courtenay and McInnerny show up, but are given little to do because they aren’t strictly necessary. This film is a love triangle between a boy, a girl and a balloon. Everyone else is superfluous.
Redmayne, Jones and Harper give their all, but I’m not expecting them to receive any Oscars. This sort of adventure story – no matter how beautifully mounted – doesn’t seem to fit the Academy’s definition of great art.
That’s OK as I imagine “The Aeronauts” will have the last laugh sooner or later. The year 1873 brought many then-beloved works of fiction: “Publicans and Sinners”, “A Pair of Blue Eyes”, “The Enchanted Wanderer” and “Around the World in 80 Days” among them. There is only one of those books we’re still talking about 146 years later. And I imagine “The Aeronauts” may have the same sort of shelf life as “80 Days”- especially among young boys and boys-at-heart who wonder what it would be like to touch the stars.
About the author
Stephen Dow is an award-winning journalist with a passion for film – not just consuming it, but thoughtfully and actively engaging with it. He believes that these modern myths have a lot to tell us about our world and ourselves. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.