Spend any amount of time in the UK and you’ll soon realise that weather is a favourite topic of conversation for Brits. So, in a year that’s been full of veritable storms, heatwaves, and hurricanes, it’s only fitting that we’d see a film dealing exclusively with the phenomenon make its premiere in London this year.
After a hugely successful run with Wild Rose at last year’s festival, LFF veteran Tom Harper this year returns to the big screen with his CGI spectacular, The Aeronauts. Telling the story of pioneering meteorologist James Glashier (Eddie Redmayne) and experienced aeronaut Amelia Wren (Felicity Jones), the film shows them daring to reach unprecedented heights in their skyward voyage, against a backdrop of stigma and social expectations in Victorian London. It’s sweet, though as far as films go, the spectacle is probably closer to Pixar’s Up than it is to a gritty drama tackling the effects of vertigo.
Director: Tom Harper
Release date: August 30, 2019 (Telluride); October 7, 2019 (LFF)
The narrative centres on Glashier’s attempt to reach the world elevation record in a hot air balloon and, further, to prove himself as a credible scientist to his colleagues at the Royal Society in Greenwich, London. Wren, meanwhile — a creation of screenwriter Jack Thorne — is a wealthy widow recovering from the death of her husband two years previously. Although sharp and quick to learn, she’s reluctant to put all of her expertise back into practice following the tragic death of her husband.
The two unlikely partners meet at a party that’s not really either of their scene, but their mutual desire to break records and break out of convention brings them together. They’re prone to a bit of bickering, as the best pairs are, but they have to learn to overcome their reservations in order to work together. At a full reconstruction of Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, the characters embark on a serious mission: to topple the existing record for height flown in a single, hydrogen-propelled hot air balloon.
For him it’s intellectual — for her it’s personal. Wren is based on real-life female pilots of the period, though her personality is given to permissible exaggeration. As a longtime fan of both Felicity Jones and Eddie Redmayne, I enjoyed seeing them collaborate together again. Last appearing as co-leads in The Theory of Everything, they have spoken in interviews about their fortuitous working dynamic and how each challenges the other.
This is a film that requires a willing suspension of disbelief. The Aeronauts is probably going to take off (pun unintended) as a successful children’s film. There are distinct playful elements, such as Amelia’s bright stage costume at the start of the film, which endears her to an audience seeking spectacle but is disapprovingly dismissed by her overbearing older sister.
One thing I would have liked to see were Amelia’s thoughts on the mission. She rapidly changes from a depressed and reclusive widow to an outgoing entertainer who climbs the side of hot air balloons and tosses a dog with parachute from the air to please a crowd. Her distinct personality traits are extreme and lean a little more towards Gin Erso in Rogue One than the placid Jane Hawking in The Theory of Everything.
While I liked Amelia’s character, a little more balance between the two co-leads would have been desirable. Wren was invented for the express purpose of bringing more female presence and a better repartee between the characters. She explicitly deals with the institutionalised misogyny of the Royal Society and her character almost dwarfs Glashier’s contribution to the film.
Glashier has a harder time convincing his friends, colleagues, and family about his achievements, including the loyal John Trew (Himesh Patel) and his aging father, suffering from dementia and unable to remark on the pioneering work. But far from his Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything, Redmayne’s Glashier rather resembles the more timid, eccentric Newt Scamander of Fantastic Beasts. He’s portrayed as quite weak, which I think is a shame when Redmayne is capable of performing much better material.
As a period piece and biopic, it wasn’t entirely consistent with reality, and that’s probably the part of the film that made it feel the most incongruous. I’d be inclined to rate it higher, but it’s not only exaggerated the facts but created an entirely new character. Permissible in a fantasy universe, perhaps, but it’s not as easily explained in reality. I’d also be more inclined to believe in the characters if it didn’t feel as though the peril was self-inflicted. As it stands, it’s a little indulgent to be believed.
It’s worth noting that The Aeronauts has been funded by Amazon, which leaves no room for doubt as to production budget and casting. The ambition — in terms of the film’s central characters and the scale of the CGI — is impressive, but not all of the elements retain the unity that would help the narrative run more fluidly.
As escapist fun than encourages spectators to think beyond the limits of the everyday and of the things they’re expected to do, it works. The majority of the film centres on the hot air balloon voyage happening over the course of a few hours and it certainly does an admirable job of creating drama from the spectacle in a manner that would sell-out at a Victorian travelling show. The two figures are confined in close proximity for most of the film, and the nausea of the heights as well as the clashing personalities pays off in creating tension. It won’t hit theaters in the UK until November 6 and the US from December, but the high-profile of the movie’s acclaimed director with a stellar cast (figuratively and literally) is likely to help the film soar.