Film Review: ‘The Aeronauts’ Delivers Thrills & Old-Fashioned Spectacle

Mike Wass | December 5, 2019 1:50 pm
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The Aeronauts isn’t the best film Amazon Studios has released this year (Les Misérables takes that honor). In fact, it’s not even the best film Tom Harper has directed this year (see Wild Rose). It is, however, the most accessible and easiest to watch. This is a good, old-fashioned popcorn movie camouflaged in period garb. There is a dearth of well-made entertainment for adults and The Aeronauts, however improbable and uneven, is exactly that.

Loosely based on the pioneering work of British meteorologist and accidental daredevil James Glaisher (the ever-watchable Eddie Redmayne), The Aeronauts recounts his 1862 ascent to a then-record height of 35,000 feet in a hot air balloon. He is accompanied on his journey by the headstrong Amelia Wren, who is not only a brilliant balloonist but also a literal circus clown and problematic dog owner. In less competent hands, the character could have easily veered into parody. But Felicity Jones somehow stitches together a woman who is equal parts fragility and bravado.

In some ways, The Aeronauts can be thought of as two distinct movies. There’s the rather staid and frankly unnecessary backstory, which has all the excitement of a BBC drama, and the white-knuckle, anxiety-inducing thrill ride of the balloon expedition. It’s in the latter scenes that the film really, excuse the pun, soars. If you didn’t suffer from a fear of heights before watching The Aeronauts, there’s every chance you will after enduring a series of dizzying stunts that are somehow made more tense by the film’s period setting.

As the silk balloon nears the stars and ropes begin to freeze, the fragility of the craft, with its homemade knots and DIY devices, becomes increasingly apparent. At times, it seems destined to pop or shatter into pieces, but the adventurers keep climbing and climbing. The scene where Amelia climbs out of the balloon to fix a faulty valve is scarier, at least to this acrophobe, than anything in Us or It Chapter Two. It’s the kind of heart-in-mouth tension that comes from the perfection union of great acting, artful CGI and the implication, however untrue, that it might have really happened.

It’s just a shame that the tension built in these scenes evaporates every time we are taken back down to earth to check in on Amelia’s dull sister or Glaisher’s sympathetic, but disinteresting family. The transitions between earth and sky feel clumsy, and do not really necessary drive the narrative forward. When you have two of the world’s best working actors in a vintage ballon that may or may not be on the brink of disaster, you don’t need to know how they met, much less sit through lengthy exposition about our hero’s lack of standing in the scientific community.

And then, there’s the historical inaccuracy. If you want a factual account of the expedition, you won’t find it here. Glaisher’s flight did in fact take place, but he was not accompanied by a daring widow. (The character of Amelia Wren is entirely made up). However, if you’re looking for a good, old-fashioned adventure with thrilling action sequences and the faintest whiff of illogical romance, The Aeronauts is essential viewing. Just try to see it on the big screen. The scenery and action sequences demand it.

The Aeronauts is in select theaters now, and will debut on Amazon Prime on December 20.

Rating: 3.5/5

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