The Aeronauts review – an adventure of highs and lows

Felicity Jones soars in Tom Harper's historically questionable but visually stunning period flight of fancy

Don’t come to The Aeronauts expecting a history lesson: the poster might claim to be “inspired by true events,” but director Tom Harper (Wild Rose) has no real interest in the landmark balloon voyage that inspired his film. That, he seems to suggest, would be far too boring. Instead writer Jack Thorne’s indiscriminate screenplay amalgamates so many historical events (and historical figures) into a single narrative that you might as well call this pure fantasy.

Reuniting Oscar-winner Eddie Redmayne and his Oscar-nominated co-star Felicity Jones for the first time since Stephen Hawking biopic The Theory of Everything, this rollicking, blue-skied adventure sets out to repeat their chummy chemistry and mostly succeeds – though it does end up feeling like Jones’ film by quite a wide margin. Redmayne – sensing The Aeronauts belongs to her, perhaps – appears content to deliver an unshowy wisp of a performance as James Glaisher, a stuffy scientist whose belief that the weather can be predicted has made him a laughing stock amongst his peers. Jones, meanwhile, is Amelia Wren, a composite of a character who never existed in real life, built in the “plucky woman before her time” mould you tend to find in so many of these period dramas, complete with tragic backstory (credit to Jones that she makes an unwritten character so watchable).

As our pair attempt to break altitude records high above a glossy, idyllic version of Victorian London that occasionally looks like Harper is realising a steampunk vision (less convincing is the implication of romance), the film blends basket-based bickering with moments of pure, visual splendour. But the best way – or perhaps the only way- to get the most out of The Aeronauts is to simply think of it as one giant set-piece. Everything you could possibly imagine going wrong with a balloon trip of this kind goes wrong, resulting in a series of genuinely heart-pounding, high-wire action sequences certain to induce panic attacks amongst acrophobes.

Spectacle aside, the flimsy writing and broad characters means there’s a faint air of bog standard BBC period drama about the whole thing. You’ll wonder, also, why Harper and Thorne didn’t have the guts to tell this story in chronological order. Did we really need endless flashbacks teasing the cancellation of the trip, given we see our heroes embarking in the very first scene? The Aeronauts jettisons the notion of a more interesting film in the process – one that could have made the most of its increasingly claustrophobic setting by having the expedition – just over an hour long – unravel in real time.

Yet it’s hard to argue with The Aeronauts‘ old-fashioned, adventurous spirit, which will surely cement it as a Sunday afternoon standard and ideal fodder for festive family gatherings. Don’t use that as an excuse to miss this one in cinemas, though: whilst “catch it on the biggest screen possible” is a common enough rallying cry amongst critics, the breathtaking aerial shots, panoramic vistas, and stunning visual effects make this one a must-see in IMAX. It’s worth it alone for the film’s quieter moments, where everything but the extraordinary view seems to die away and The Aeronauts suddenly feels like pure cinema.

★★★☆☆

By: Tom Barnard

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