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The Aeronauts sees the reunion of Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones following their breakout roles in The Theory of Everything – the biopic of renowned physicist Stephen Hawking which won Redmayne an Oscar back in 2015. Whereas that film was more concerned with who Hawking was as a person rather than focusing on his achievements in the field of cosmology, The Aeronauts is much larger in scope. The primary focus is on the extraordinary endeavour of meteorologist James Glaisher (Redmayne) and hot-air balloon pilot Amelia Wren (Jones) to break the world flight altitude record in 1862.
You would assume The Aeronauts takes a conventional approach to its material, like The Theory of Everything, giving us the backstory of Glaisher and Wren in the first half before dropping them into the basket of the balloon and to the skies in the latter. But director Tom Harper (The Woman in Black: The Angel of Death, this year’s Wild Rose), along with screenwriter Jack Thorne (National Treasure, The Virtues), chooses a more unique route in structuring this story. The film literally begins with the commencement of the expedition as the two rise higher and higher in their balloon giving The Aeronauts a sense of immediacy. However, as the narrative progresses the biopic then begins the habit of jumping back in time, providing us with the factors that led to Glaisher and Wren’s decision to embark on this life-or-death voyage.
It’s this tendency of reverting to the past which weighs the film down. While the flashbacks do provide us with some crucial information, it comes at the detriment of hindering the sense of limitation within the confines of the balloon’s basket. Thankfully the film really soars when it chooses to focus on Glaisher and Wren’s current situation up in the air. There are the moments of great beauty as the two gaze upon the Victorian era scenery as they sail across the skies – brought to life through some very impressive CGI. In contrast to this sublimity though are the more threatening sequences of thunderous weather and sub-zero temperatures enhanced through some sharp and booming sound design and editing. Harper directs these set-pieces with great intensity, evoking the same chaos that poor Sandra Bullock’s astronaut endured in Alfonso Cuaron’s 2013 space-thriller Gravity.
But despite being a visual feast for the eyes, the heart and flame keeping this vessel afloat are the performances. The chemistry between Redmayne and Jones here is just as charming as it was in The Theory of Everything. The two inherit a very similar dynamic to what you see in a buddy-cop movie. They begin as polar opposites. Redmayne’s Glaisher is the more practical and serious of the two, with Jones’ Wren being more spontaneous and free-spirited (or so she seems on the surface). It’s a lot of pressure for two actors to carry an entire movie but they both prove up for the challenge. Just like the characters they are playing the pair are willing to persevere even further and go beyond their limit. One stunt in particular towards the climax even gives Jones the opportunity to embrace her inner daredevil and give Mr. Tom Cruise a run for his money.
Like the expedition itself, The Aeronauts has some bumps and shakes. But the film as a whole ends up being a very charming, uplifting and sentimental experience, bolstered by the likability of its central leads. It’s their commanding performances which truly prevent this adventure movie from deflating and crashing down.