REVIEW: The Aeronauts [2019]

Rating: 7 out of 10.
  • Rating: PG-13 | Runtime: 100 minutes
    Release Date: November 4th, 2019 (UK)
    Studio: Entertainment One / Amazon Studios
    Director(s): Tom Harper
    Writer(s): Jack Thorne / Tom Harper & Jack Thorne (story) / Richard Holmes (book Falling Upwards: How We Took to the Air)

Doubt is there to be listened to.

When Jack Thorne decided to craft a screenplay that was able to embody the insanity of what Richard Holmes described in his book about early aeronautic pioneers, Falling Upwards: How We Took to the Air, he recognized that cherry picking the best bits and smushing them together through fiction proved the simplest way to represent the era’s spirit if not each of the participants themselves. There was dramatic intrigue to meteorologist James Glaisher breaking the world record for flight altitude alongside pilot Henry Coxwell. There was historical relevance to Sophie Blanchard becoming the first woman to work as a professional balloonist following her aeronaut husband Jean-Pierre’s death. With additional lives (and deaths) of others, Thorne could condense, combine, and rewrite history into a single flight of cinematic gravitas.

So that’s what he did with The Aeronauts. Using Glaisher (Eddie Redmayne)—the sole real life character left intact—as a springboard, Thorne manufactures that record-setting expedition to be led by Amelia Wren (Felicity Jones) instead. She’s born from Blanchard with pieces of Margaret Graham and Thomas Harris spliced in to turn her backstory into one mired with unspeakable loss, propelled by infinite wonder, and primed to ensure the importance of women to this science won’t be forgotten behind a plot otherwise populated by men. She becomes Glaisher’s only shot in this alternate reality to help him collect the data necessary to prove weather prediction can save lives when every other capable pilot laughs at the notion. They might just change the world if they can remain alive.

The script consists mainly of the ninety-minute flight itself with flashbacks interspersed to show us how both Amelia and James arrived to this day. Along with that separation of past and present, director Tom Harper also delineates between land and air with his aspect ratios. Those moments occurring on the ground (no matter if they’re before, during, or after the journey) are shot in widescreen while the ones in the rising basket expand vertically to full IMAX-ready framing. The camera also becomes very claustrophobic during the latter scenes since there’s little room to maneuver between the two adventurers. This goes for conversation too once James’ reveals his pigeons (messengers to deliver data in case they don’t survive) and Amelia the PTSD-fueled nightmares of her husband’s demise.

Dangers loom right from the get-go as their launch coincides with a storm cloud Glaisher didn’t believe would cause them any trouble. As the balloon is thrown about and lightning crackles, however, the tension rises to peak levels with each character forced to put their lives on the line to save the other. I personally found the reprieve from such action that memories provide a welcome change of pace to catch my breath before experiencing the next round of Mother Nature’s wrath. We get to see James’ perseverance opposite colleagues and family (Tom Courtenay‘s performance as his skeptical but proud father is a nice addition) as well as Amelia’s reinvigorated drive to reclaim the joy of the sky despite her humorously worrisome sister’s (Phoebe Fox‘s Antonia) vocal objections.

I also think these asides help us appreciate the present-day motivations as far as Amelia’s trepidation towards pushing the balloon too far and James’ very real willingness to sacrifice himself in order to accomplish his goals. This is the root of so much of the drama whether it’s him persuading her to be his pilot back then or her forcing him to see reason when his hypoxia risks killing them both now. It’s this human conflict that drives the largest performance-based fireworks because it gets at the balance we all must acknowledge between our ambitions and mortality. Whereas time’s destruction of his father’s mind pushes James to work harder and faster, nature’s cruel ambivalence stealing Amelia’s love away taught her that life is always more valuable than fame.

The movie uses these lessons as inspiration for what happens next once they rise so high that decreasing temperatures and oxygen become deadly. Glaisher’s overzealousness ensures Wren must leverage her desire to live against impossible odds (Harper is unapologetic in highlighting the frostbite, height, and vertigo of a situation wherein she must climb to the balloon’s top while hovering seven miles above ground). Her demons conversely demand that his mathematical intellect solve a problem she and her husband couldn’t. I won’t deny that Thorne relies upon convenient dualities and déjà vu in ways that render his script more about manipulation than natural progression, but the experience is exhilarating nonetheless. And that was his goal. He and Harper used Holmes’ book to create a spectacle mere words could not.

To me that’s more than enough for The Aeronauts to prove a success. They probably would have been better off changing Glaisher’s name too and thus avoided living with one foot in fact and another in fiction, but that shouldn’t diminish the ride we take alongside him and Amelia. Her inclusion lets young girls become excited by science and heroism while James’ friend John Trew (Himesh Patel) shows young boys that it’s okay to support from the sidelines. Harper and Thorne sought to create an adventure that would inspire everyone without being beholden to the less dramatic moments of the real innovators’ lives. Their James and Amelia provide us a century’s worth of triumph and excitement in an hour-and-a-half. It’s a wild appetizer for history’s more expansive meal.

[1] Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones in THE AERONAUTS. Courtesy of Amazon Studios.
[2] Felicity Jones in THE AERONAUTS. Courtesy of Amazon Studios.

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