THE AERONAUTS – Review
“Up, up, and awaaay in my beautiful balloon” sang the Fifth Dimension in the swingin’ 1960s, making this bouncy pop tune their signature song. Drifting high above the clouds then seemed to be the epitome of a lazy, romantic dream date (still does). But a hundred years before, it was quite a different kind of excursion. Many risked their lives dangling from a rickety wicker basket thousands of feet above the ground. That’s the era of the new historical adventure film hitting theatres this weekend. And why were they risking it all? Escape from a hostile regime? Delivering intel to hasten a military victory? No, it’s something we truly take for granted today: predicting the weather. As we leave our homes we switch on the TV forecast or glance at our phone app to know how thick a coat or jacket we should wear or if we should dig around for that umbrella in the back of the closet. But to attain that knowledge it took a certain blend of scientist and daredevil. Some may have derided them as “balloonatics” but they were closer to the nautical explorers of ancient times. Perhaps akin to Jason’s Argonauts, but not astronauts, these brave souls were called THE AERONAUTS.
This true tale begins in London circa 1862 at the public launch of a massive balloon, the backers hoping it will set new records, going higher than any has before. Making sure all the recording devices and various gadgets are in place is James Glasisher (Eddie Redmayne) who refers to himself as a meteorologist, a weather-predicting scientist. He’s aided by friend and fellow scholar John Trew (Himesh Patel), but he’s not part of the aeronaut duo on this trip. They’re waiting for veteran balloon pilot Amelia Wren (Felicity Jones). She arrives with seconds to spare, dressed more like a circus equestrian as she “plays the crowd” with flamboyant gestures and assorted “hoopla”. As she finishes her “act”, ropes are cut, weights are dropped, and the balloon takes flight. As it quickly rises above the clouds (including some dark ones of concern), the duo reflects on the events that brought them together. James recalls the resistance to the research mission from the Royal Society (lots of hoots and laughter), but he forged ahead, raising the funds, but was in need of a seasoned balloon expert. His best bet is Amelia, but she has been in retirement after a flight ended in tragedy. Her sister Antonia (Phoebe Fox) prods her to be more social, finally bringing her to a formal dance. That’s where she meets James. After several “stops and starts”, she commits to this flight to gather atmospheric information. But all is not smooth sailing or soaring, as they reach never before attained heights (ten thousand more than the records). The team must deal with rapidly dropping temperatures and reduced oxygen, as the afternoon’s journey becomes a deadly, battering physical struggle to stay alive.
In their first pairing since THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING (can’t be five years already), these two talented stars still share vibrant chemistry though the dynamic is quite different. Redmayne still projects a keen intelligence and an unquenchable thirst for knowledge, much as in that previous Oscar-winning role, while conveying James’ frustrations (at those deriding “stuffed shirts”) and his anxiety. We get the feeling he’s hoping his enthusiasm and curiosity squashes his anxiety (he’s never been up, way way up, before). And while his Hawking desired romance, Glaisher really desires respect, not only from the scientific community, but from his flight partner, Jones, as Wren, is definitely the more dynamic of the two, but she too is plagued by inner doubts along with that last flight that haunts her every move. Her pre-liftoff twirls and gymnastics may be her way of “flipping off” the grim reaper. And though she has little interest in all the measuring gadgets, Wren does become the “voice of reason” as Glaisher opts to go further and farther. As they breach the sky, Jones is an impressive action star as she is flung about and bruised more than Pearl White in a dozen chapters of THE PERILS OF PAULINE. But even as she seems to do the impossible, Jones conveys Wren’s humanity through her wide expressive eyes. Back on the ground, Patel offers great support as James’ level-headed, often snarky sidekick. Fox is a likable “nudge” as Wren’s sister who finds her pleas to “get out” backfire (she doesn’t want her flying again). And acting icon Tom Courtney turns in a heartbreaking performance as the Glaisher patriarch, whose pride in his son is nearly destroyed by rapidly advancing senility.
This is also a change of pace for the talented director (and co-writer of the script with Jack Thorne), Tom Harper. Earlier this year he delighted movie-goers with the modern musical drama WILD ROSE, now he returns with this swashbuckling slice of history. The balloon themed thrills hold up well against such high-flying classics like MYSTERIOUS ISLAND, FIVE WEEKS IN A BALLOON, and AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS, not to mention recent foreign films like BALLOON and HAWAII but energized with state of the art effects. We feel like we’re cutting through the clouds alongside the duo, enjoying the tranquil skyscape (butterflies suddenly surround them). But the same can be said when things take a deadly turn. When a storm strikes it looks as though a vengeful titan has reached through space to throttle the balloon and its fragile basket (luckily there are lots of dangling ropes). And it’s not long before an arctic god blows his cold wind their way, and our teeth start to chatter along with the brave pilots. The flashbacks help ease some of the tension (the film is about as long as the actual flight) while giving us an insight into the motivations of the two leads. And these interludes showcase the brilliant period costumes and sets. For fans of “steampunk” stories, this tale of real heroes is pure heaven, which is awfully close to the desired destination of THE AERONAUTS.
3.5 Out of 4
THE AERONAUTS opens everywhere and screen exclusively in the St. Louis area at Landmark’s Plaza Frontenac Cinemas and the Hi-Pointe Backlot