Producers: Todd Lieberman, David Hoberman and Tom Harper Director: Tom Harper Screenplay: Jack Thorne Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones, Tom Courtenay, Phoebe Fox, Himesh Patel, Rebecca Front, Robert Glenister, Vincent Perez and Anne Reid Distributor: Amazon Studios
At last—a movie for fans of the Weather Channel! Though it hardly hews to the historical record, Tom Harper’s “The Aeronauts” is about the beginnings of the science of meteorology, or weather forecasting—done up in the form of a romantic adventure, no less. It’s engaging enough though a mess historically, but runs out of gas—or hot air—before a strenuously triumphant finale.
Jack Thorne’s screenplay, based on a story constructed by him and director Tom Harper, is loosely based on a record-breaking balloon ascent taken by James Glaisher (Eddie Redmayne) on September 5, 1862. He rose to an unprecedented height—estimated between 35,000 and 37,000 feet (exact barometric measurement was made impossible because Glaisher passed out around 30,000 feet). The flight was a significant step in establishing meteorology—and weather forecasting—as an accepted scientific field.
In real life Glaisher was a stern-looking fellow in his early fifties in 1862, the Superintendant of the Meteorology Department at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich. He’s played here by the boyish, thirty-seven year old Redmayne as a professional outcast whose ideas are ridiculed by the vast majority of his peers in the scientific societies of nineteenth-century Britain. Glaisher’s pilot was Henry Tracey Coxwell, a thoroughly professional balloonist. He’s replaced in the film by a beautiful, spunky, liberated, publicity-generating woman named Amelia Wren (Felicity Jones, who co-starred with Redmayne in Harper’s “The Theory of Everything”). She’s like a feminine P.T. Barnum, using cartwheels and fireworks, and even a parachuting little pooch, to engage the cheering crowds at takeoff.
The fact that Wren’s character is based loosely on that of real balloonist Sophie Blanchard, who (like Amelia), lost her husband (played in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him flashback by Vincent Perez) in a ballooning accident—she died, moreover, when a spark from a fireworks display ignited her craft, though that was in 1819—doesn’t really justify such a major rewriting of the record, but it does allow for some sprightly bickering between Redmayne and Jones, playing Glaisher and Wren as temperamental opposites, and their gradual warming to one another, that gives a veneer of period rom-com to the movie, Tracy-Hepburn style.
In actuality, that’s the weakest part of the picture. Especially at the start, Wren is depicted (and played by Jones) in such an aggressively flamboyant fashion that’s she’s more irritating than charming. Once the balloon is afloat, her manner becomes more professional, but her heroism in bringing the balloon back to earth after the frigidity of the altitude makes it difficult is so overstated that, while it certainly concludes the picture on a visually exciting action-adventure note, it comes off as ludicrous. (The actual flight did involve desperate measures on Coxwell’s part, but nothing like this.) The inventions do, however, make “The Aeronauts” more a triumph of female empowerment than scientific innovation.
By contrast Redmayne makes Glaisher the sort of dithering, charmingly serious young Brit who’s a fairly stock character. As always he’s likable, and he looks good in the period costume, but in this construction his character plays distinctly second fiddle to Jones’s. Even when the scientific community that had shunned his ideas embraces him at the close, it’s still Wren who comes off as the more commanding figure.
Of the other actors, veteran Tom Courtenay appears as Glaisher’s father, who introduced him to astronomy but is now sinking into dementia. He’s a formidable presence, though the part hardly taxes his talent. Himesh Patel has the only other significant role, as one of Glaisher’s major supporters.
The film is of course a fairly lavish affair, with details of dress and locale painstakingly attended to. The production and costume design by Christian Huband and David Hindle on the one hand and Alexandra Byrne on the other are certainly eye-catching. (One might also point to the voluminous beards that most of the men—though not Redmayne—sport.) The really significant element here, however, is George Steel’s widescreen cinematography, which captures the splendor of the balloon’s ascent—through clouds and storms before entering the upper atmosphere. The icing over of the craft as it goes higher and higher, and the shots of Amelia literally clambering over the balloon’s surface to get to the top and release the gas, obviously involve a great many process shots and CGI, but they’re well handled, and Steven Price’s score complements the images nicely. (Animal lovers will be happy that neither that parachuting pooch, nor some pigeons in later scenes, suffered any real harm.)
So the various parts of “The Aeronauts” fare differently. As a history lesson, it’s egregious bunk, and as a romance it’s formulaic; but as spectacle it has its moments, and as a proto-modern feminist fantasy it has an obvious attraction. Overall, though it soars only sporadically, and then only in visual rather than emotional or scientific terms.