It’s perhaps too early to see whether Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones will become a posher, plummier version of Tracy/Hepburn, Hanks/Ryan etc, but the signs are good. Reuniting after Oscar-winning Stephen Hawking drama The Theory Of Everything, Redmayne and Jones give charm and charisma to The Aeronauts, playing real-life scientist James Glaisher, a kind of 19th-century Michael Fish looking to imbue weather prediction with science, and Amelia Wren, a fictionalised balloon pilot with her head in the clouds and her heart in the gutter. If it stutters in its attempts to round out its thin characters with backstory, it soars with an old-school spirit of adventure and possibility, topped off with grandstanding filmmaking from Tom Harper.
In a vividly realised 1862 London, the film begins with James and Amelia’s lift-off, a science expedition given a shot of showbiz razzle-dazzle by Amelia who arrives on horseback, cartwheels onto the stage and deploys a pooch with a parachute to the delight of the packed throng. From here most of the film takes place in the basket and subsequently soars. Harper and screenwriter Jack Thorne deliver moments of wonder (butterflies), serenity (inside a cloud), black humour (poor pigeon), danger (a thunderous storm) and, in its final third, a set-piece of heart-stopping intensity. The craft is impeccable, from gorgeous cinematography to seamless CG, putting you at 37,000 feet (nifty graphics show the height and timeframe) to the point where vertigo is a certainty — some stretches have the feel of Gravity with spacesuits swapped for oilskin jackets.
*The Aeronauts* is bolstered not only by the chemistry between Redmayne and Jones but also their skill.
Ironically, the film is on slightly shakier ground on terra firma, when Harper and Thorne attempt to flesh out James and Amelia’s backstories (as well as the running time) via flashbacks. So we are given vignettes depicting Glashier’s run-ins with his scientific contemporaries, as well as him coping with a dad (Tom Courtenay) suffering from dementia. Amelia’s past is blighted by the death of her husband (Vincent Perez), her struggles to transcend traditional women’s duties and the worry of her sister (Phoebe Fox) as she prepares to embark on another adventure. Some sequences — James and Amelia’s sparring while dancing at a ball — shine, others feel like treading water.
Still, along with Harper’s bravura filmmaking, The Aeronauts is bolstered not only by the chemistry between Redmayne and Jones but also their skill — given the close quarters of being trapped in a basket for much of the film, awe and terror is sold by their faces. Of course he represents science, she represents daredevilry, but it’s never the ‘opposites attract’ trope in the obvious romantic sense. Instead their attraction is minted by drive, ambition and infectious optimism. It’s that, as much as VFX, that keeps The Aeronauts in flight.