The Aeronauts review: A whimsical and pastel-hued trip up to the stratosphere

It’s a chance to celebrate the spirit of discovery, in homage to the old adventure films of Hollywood’s golden age

The Aeronauts - Trailer

Dir: Tom Harper. Starring: Felicity Jones, Eddie Redmayne, Himesh Patel and Tom Courtenay. PG cert, 100 mins

She’s reckless. He’s uptight. They’re stuck together in a hot air balloon 40,000 feet above ground. But just when you think The Aeronauts is about to repackage stale romcom conventions in 19th-century frocks, it manages to surprise. This is more than an excuse to reunite The Theory of Everything co-stars Felicity Jones and Eddie Redmayne for another buttoned-up, exceedingly British affair. It’s a chance to celebrate the spirit of discovery, in homage to the old adventure films of Hollywood’s golden age. The only romance here is the intoxicating allure of the unknown.

The Aeronauts is concerned more with fantasy than with fact. It’s only loosely based on the feats of James Glaisher and Henry Tracey Coxwell, who, in 1862, flew higher into the atmosphere than anyone had ever done before. James is played by Redmayne, whose defining feature is that he’s a man of logic and science (as he loves to repeat, over and over again). Coxwell, however, has been jettisoned in favour of Amelia Rennes (Jones), an amalgam of several pioneering female balloonists. A natural show-woman, she rides up to the launch site dressed like a porcelain doll and trading in grand proclamations. “We may reach the moon and bring back stardust,” she tells the crowd. As the balloon makes its ascent, she tosses her dog Posey over the side. The crowd gasps – but, of course, there’s a hidden parachute.

Director Tom Harper, behind this year’s crowd-pleaser Wild Rose, seems to agree with Amelia’s worldview. The Aeronauts puts entertainment first. It’s whimsical and pastel-hued – a delectable macaron of a film. Though there are epic, often vertiginous shots of the open sky, George Steel’s cinematography remains soft and pretty. Even when our heroes are in imminent danger, their balloon still looks like a child’s toy suspended on cotton wool.

Jones, however, is The Aeronauts’ secret weapon. From Rogue One to On the Basis of Sex, she’s developed a knack for delivering mildly silly dialogue with complete sincerity. When she says “cloud ahoy” or “I’m a really good aeronaut”, there’s no cause for laughter. It sounds as truthful as if she’d just delivered a Shakespearian monologue. But screenwriter Jack Thorne also hasn’t delivered us another boilerplate headstrong woman. Amelia doesn’t defy convention for the sake of it, but because it might be her only route to happiness. Redmayne, too, finds moments where he can let James become more than the loveable nerd. He’s particularly effective when that stiff upper lip starts to crumble in the presence of his father who suffers from Alzheimer’s.

A braver film would have kept the action entirely within the balloon’s wicker confines. The Aeronauts escapes every once and while, for some explanatory flashbacks. James is laughed out of the scientific community for his belief that he can predict the weather, while Amelia struggles to find closure after her husband’s death in an aeronauting accident. It all feels a little perfunctory, especially when it comes to the film’s supporting characters. Himesh Patel’s John Trew, James’s friend, openly acknowledges that he’s been sidelined when he confesses: “Some reach for the stars, some push others toward them.” Who wouldn’t want to be up there in the clouds, when The Aeronauts makes it look so dreamy?

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