Those with a fear of heights may want to brace themselves for The Aeronauts, the story of a scientist and a balloonist who ascend in a hot air balloon over 1860s London in an effort to break existing altitude records and learn what they can about the atmosphere. Starring Felicity Jones and Eddie Redmayne (who appeared together in The Theory of Everything, for which he won an Oscar and she was nominated) as the balloonist and the scientist, respectively, the majority of the film takes place in the small wicker basket that’s roped to the massive balloon, a space no bigger than a kitchen table that Amelia Rennes (or is it Wren?) and James Glaisher share for some thousands of feet up into the air.
For this acrophobe (yes, I count myself among those who stay off the balconies of high-rises and have no use for those glass cases on the observation deck at Willis Tower), the adventures of Amelia and James are nothing short of thrilling. Though more than once I found myself silently pleading with them to please just stop leaning over the side of the basket please god please, I was nevertheless on the edge of my seat throughout some of the more incredible sequences up in the air. And for a film where the narrative is, quite literally, to just go up and see what happens, the two encounter their fair share of obstacles and adventures. Early on, the balloon drifts directly towards a thunderstorm, and it’s as harrowing as it gets as the two literally hold on for dear life until it passes. And that’s just the appetizer course.
Directed by Tom Harper (who co-wrote the script with Jack Thorne), the film is at its best in the sky, as Jones’ and Redmayne’s characters are, to one degree or another, in their element. She’s a bit of a celebrity in the hot air balloon field, an entertainer who wows the crowd with stunts and spectacle; he’s a scientist eager to prove himself through the then-understudied practice of weather prediction. The action in the basket is broken up by flashback scenes back on Earth that explain a bit more about how these two came to be miles up in the air together. And while my breathing eased during the moments on solid ground, my heart rate certainly slowed, too, as these moments of expository dialogue and character building pale in comparison to the drama of the balloon. (Oh, the very, very high drama…literally.)
We learn that Amelia isn’t too keen about getting back in a basket after her husband died in a balloon accident years earlier (we also learn the truth of the accident, which I won’t spoil here). We learn that her family has tried and tried to get her out of mourning, but aren’t exactly thrilled to hear that when she does snap out of it, it’s because she’s going back up in the air. We learn that James is a bit of a geek in a Royal Society of them, not taken seriously and at his wit’s (and bank account’s) end trying to do the scientific work he believes in. It’s all very good information to have, and it certainly fills some of the film’s hundred minute runtime. But there are moments where even Jones and Redmayne can’t seem to be bothered to care about these scenes, rushing through them or otherwise not as engaged as they are when they’re getting tossed about at 10,000 feet.
Ultimately a work of fiction—the character of Amelia, for example is a creation, inspired by female aeronauts of the day but not a depiction of anyone specific—The Aeronauts is nevertheless a historically based story. James Glaisher did exist, and was an early meteorologist, and he did take flights in hot air balloons for his research. This particular one never happened, of course, but that—and the film’s less engaging moments—doesn’t make the adventure any less stirring. George Steel’s chaotic cinematography more than evokes the danger of their circumstances, turning already tense moments into real nail-biters. As the film nears its end, Harper certainly had to consider the danger that he’d exhaust his audience; one can only watch two people try to survive in a balloon basket for so long. Thankfully, there’s solid ground below them again by the end, and we’ve all been on quite a ride.
The Aeronauts is now playing in Chicago, with a special 70mm engagement at Music Box Theatre.
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