Escapist entertainment reaches new heights in The Aeronauts, Amazon’s new epic based on a true story following hot air balloonists in 1862 England. The journey, which spans across London, follows a scientist (Eddie Redmayne) and his pilot (Felicity Jones) as they set out to break the altitude record. It’s not an easy journey for the characters, but it’s smooth sailing for audience members unafraid of heights. The protagonists ascend above the clouds to keep their everyday troubles out of sight. But for James Glaisher (Redmayne), the voyage is also like a space odyssey, about science. He’s a meteorologist who believes that at 35,000 feet it’s possible to track weather patterns. He was right, of course. We now know how to track the weather, and its importance to crops and preventing hazards is extremely significant. In the 1800’s, however, the English squawked at Glaisher’s theories the same way they did dental care.
The denial sends Glaisher running around London in search of a pilot. Even though a man named Henry Coxwell was the actual pilot who accompanied Glaisher to 37,000 feet, Amelia Wren (Jones) is a more suitable character for this airy blockbuster. She cartwheels through the crowd on the day of takeoff, and as thousands of people watch Glaisher setting up his scientific instruments, she entertains them in grand fashion. “Today, history will be made!” she exclaims.
The movie takes off once they do. In a balloon that looks like a carnival tent and a basket that can barely fit two people, Wren and Glaisher marvel at the majestic vistas and valleys. Looking down at the buildings below, they discuss the hardships they have left behind. She lost her husband (Vincent Perez) to a ballooning accident three years prior. He is dealing with a dying father (Tom Courtenay) and a fading career. Together they develop a charming friendship.
The likability of the characters should be credited to Jones and Redmayne, who previously co-starred as Stephen Hawking and his wife in The Theory of Everything. Their chemistry is equally convincing here. When the two make fun of each other’s professions, or open up about what the trip means for them personally, you can sense that it didn’t take much acting for Jones and Redmayne to create characters that like each other, since they are already friends off screen.
And director Tom Harper brings spellbinding imagery to their flight. During the first leg of the trip, they cruise past puffy cumulonimbus clouds. Shot in an actual hot air balloon, with the CGI added in post production, these wide screen moments are a symbol for the characters’ independence. Only in the stratosphere do they have the freedom to forge their own paths.
But problems eventually arise. One scene sees the balloon being tossed around in a thunderstorm, while another shows sweat turn to snow at 34,000 feet. When Glaisher passes out due to lack of oxygen, Wren has to climb up the side of the balloon by herself to open up the frozen valve on top. In a breathtaking shot, the camera itself seems to be frozen to the netting, as Wren scales the side of the balloon as if she was climbing a mountain.
There are cinematic problems along the way, too. Flashbacks to the events before takeoff weigh down this otherwise exciting adventure. Nearly half the run time takes place on the ground, which means half the film consists of Glashier being mocked for his scientific beliefs and Wren being scolded for being a woman with aspirations. When in the air, though, their problems, as well as ours, fade away in the clouds.