Based on Jack Thorne’s novel Falling Upward, director Tom Harper’s film The Aeronauts is a mixed bag. It features strong performances from Felicity Jones and Eddie Redmayne, stunning cinematography from director of photography George Steele, and a dazzling score by composer Steven Price. Still, the film suffers from some lazy dialogue, hit-or-miss visual effects, and plot contrivances that range from familiar to hackneyed.
Set in (and mostly above) London in approximately 1858, the film revolves around Amelia Rennes (Jones), a hydrogen balloon pilot with a sordid history, and scientist/astronomer/aspiring meteorologist James Glaisher (Redmayne). The pair intend to break the record for the highest altitude balloon ascension in human history. What follows is a story of aerial survival that is juxtaposed with backstories that are presented for both characters, some of which work, some of which don’t.
Having previously worked together on 2014’s The Theory of Everything, Redmayne and Jones bring a considerable chemistry to their relationship. Fortunately the movie eschews a romantic relationship between the two, as the balloon ride itself takes place in real time. One could argue that some semblance of a romance is implied – and I wouldn’t necessarily contest that – but given that the excursion was only an hour or two, that could have been a bit much.
My understanding is that Jones and Redmayne did film some scenes aboard a balloon, but admittedly, there were sequences that clearly looked like they were shooting in front of a green screen, and it felt off. Further, there were moments that seemed to be shot with a fish-eye lens, and they felt incredibly out of place. That written, there are shots where we see the balloon against mountains of stormclouds, lit beautifully by the golden sun and unsullied by smog. It’s absolutely picturesque in every way.
As mentioned above, flashbacks are peppered throughout the film and at first they come across as incredibly jarring. The film is giving us context for both characters, but is clumsy in doing so, at first cutting from an exhilarating sequence to a dry character set up. Eventually the movie finds its rhythm, and we, the audience, do as well.
There are three or four action set pieces in this film that are – without engaging in hyperbole – absolutely heartstopping. Those with a fear of heights my want to steer clear of this one. The movie does a solid job of visualizing the altitude, thus rendering the stakes very real, and very frightening at that.
The Aeronauts is not a film that I’m likely to revisit anytime soon. While it boasts some incredibly intense moments and strong performances, it’s not something that will stick in my mind for long. Still – despite it being from Amazon Studios and available on Amazon Prime – I believe it is worth seeing on the big screen if the opportunity presents itself.