No hot air here, just craft and chemistry
Dir. Tom Harper. UK. 2019. 101 mins.
Showing off its precision-tooled craft with considerable modesty, Aeronauts is a high-flying British period adventure with atmospheric levels of film-star wattage from charismatic leads Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones. A thrilling, action-packed, wide-vista yarn from the sharp quills of Jack Thorne and co-writer and director Tom Harper, this Amazon-backed project is deceptively simple yet surprisingly deft. With a limited theatrical outing set prior to a pre-Christmas launch on the streaming service, this is indisputably a crowd-pleaser, yet not in the Avengers blanket-release mould. Finding that crowd in today’s marketplace is an interesting commercial question, but surely the unstoppable force of The Aeronauts’ charms will prevail?
With the widest of wide-screens, the most vertiginous of vistas, this hot air balloon takes to the skies and soars
Harper’s second release in a year – after Wild Rose – blasts out everything from Scorsese’s Hugo, to Around The World In 80 Days to even The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, yet most of its action is confined to the basket of a hot air balloon with two British actors adversorially stuck inside. Set in 1862 London, and an amalgamation of several true-life stories, the film’s narrative is deliberately un-cluttered and nicely spaced with thrilling two-handed set-pieces in which the feisty adventurer heroine, pilot Amelia Wren (Jones) gets all the best action sequences. Not that Eddie Redmayne, as meteorologist James Glaisher, would let anyone steal a scene from him without mounting the staunchest of charm offensives.
Harper starts the action at the launch site for an attempt on the world record for the highest-flying balloon. Experienced pilot (with a past) Wren realises the need to put on a show for the spectators who have amassed to see her off, though she’s nervous enough to stop the carriage on the way there to steady her nerves. Waiting anxiously is Glaisher, who wants to prove to the doubting, guffawing fellows at the Royal Society that weather can be measured and predicted. The two are opposites, of course, and they attract each other, but it’s their drive and ambition that unites them to fuel Harper’s narrative sails.
Flashbacks fill in how this couple found each other and decided to launch their record-breaking quest: we see Amelia’s worried sister (Phoebe Fox) and hear about her dead balloonist husband. Glaisher is shown coping with the derision of his fellow scientists with the exception of his university friend (Himesh Patel) alongside the mental deterioration of his beloved father. But really, Harper just wants to take to the skies and explore what they can do – what the real-life aeronauts did do – there.
With the widest of wide-screens, the most vertiginous of vistas, this hot air balloon takes to the skies and soars, taking the film along with it. From the ringing of church bells which echoes on high, to a thunder storm, to the silence of the atmosphere above, The Aeronauts is a delightful journey. The occupants of this craft want to push themselves, and it, as high as they can go; Harper mirrors that ambition with a screen-stretching vision. The pressure mounts as the ice descends and they soar past 30,000 feet – at which point Wren is forced to take heart-pulsing action to ensure their survival.
Tech credits are terrific across the board. From 1860s London, with its autumnal colours studded by the cobalt blues of the costume department, to the swaying ropes and twine and basket mechnanism of the vessel, The Aeronauts showcases British craft. Stripped down, their faces bared to the elements, Redmayne and Jones sparkle with life and chemistry, much of it in extremel close-up. Fans of the classic, old-style British adventure epic are certainly in for a treat, wherever they find it (and it’s impossible not to hope that’s on the big screen).
Production companies: Amazon Studios
International sales: Amazon Studios
Producers: Todd Lieberman, David Hoberman, Tom Harper
Screenplay: Jack Thorne
Cinematography: George Steel
Editing: Mark Eckersley
Production design: Christian Huband, David Hindle
Main cast: Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones, Tom Courtenay, Himesh Patel
Set in 1862, and an amalgamation of several true-life stories
Harper – Wild Rose