'The Aeronauts' Review: A Dramatic Adventure That Fails to Take Flight

The Aeronauts is designed to dazzle, both visually and in terms of its time-hopping storytelling structure, yet its impact is as wispy as the air that its hot-air balloons soar through. In what feels like the umpteenth true-story drama of the 2019 awards season, The Aeronauts is a moderately handsome production without actually being dramatically involving. As often as the film takes to the air, its earthbound scenes are dry and dull, giving off the vague whiff of dramatic leftovers.

Felicity Jones plays Amelia Wren, a showman-like performer in 1860s London who leads a manned flight to the sky in the hopes of beating the height record in a hot-air balloon. She’s joined by fledgling meteorologist James Glaisher (Eddie Redmayne), whose ambitions are in essentially proving to the top-hatted gentlemen of the Royal Society of London that meteorology is a real, legitimate science. To do that, he’ll have to get scientific proof of how weather works at higher altitudes, hence his own quest to top the height record. For Amelia, the desire is to put the tragic death of her husband, a fellow ballooning adventurer, into the past and prove that she can go on expeditions of her own without his presence.

The Aeronauts, when Amelia and James are in the air, is at least a mildly compelling adventure with the requisite amount of tension and surprise. But the structure of the script, courtesy of writer Jack Thorne and director Tom Harper, is such that the story jumps back and forth in time before the opening credits have begun to roll. After incredibly brief glimpses of the two heroes on the fateful balloon, we jump back to the launch of the flight, interspersed then and later with flashbacks to each of their lives. If The Aeronauts was to run in full chronological order, it’s likely that the last half-hour of the 100-minute film would be dedicated to the fateful flight. Instead, the trip is seen in bits and pieces, fits and starts that continually allow The Aeronauts to never feel entirely disappointing, even as it never achieves the kind of dramatic heights it hopes to.

By starting the film at such a late point, we first meet Amelia largely as a figure of fancy, a full-on flibbertigibbet who seems more impressed with putting on a show for an adoring crowd (including tossing her own dog overboard on the balloon only to reveal that it’s fitted with a parachute) than on scientific choices. And conversely, James is portrayed as such a stuffy, stick-up-his-ass type that as much as the two characters represent polar opposites, they also aren’t that exciting to spend time with. The two actors — reuniting after their awards-bait work in The Theory of Everything — are both perfectly fine, especially when they’re allowed to act more human than as archetypes. 

Redmayne is arguably delivering one of his better performances here, if only because James Glaisher feels like a real person (not merely because he literally was a real person) due to the Oscar winner’s gradually low-key performance. Jones has more to do in the film (especially in the final stretch), but there’s a struggle in her work to balance the forcefully flighty side of Amelia with the more tender and heartfelt side. (Unlike with Redmayne and James, this may be due to the fact that Amelia Wren was not a real person, but an amalgam of other women of the era.) When she finally expresses real interest in James’ scientific methods, it’s meant to be a sign of her changing character; however, if you track how much time has passed in the flight itself, Amelia’s change has been radical indeed.

The reality of the situation itself could be criticized, to be sure. Historians have dinged The Aeronauts because the flight depicted in the film wasn’t taken by Glaisher and Wren, or in fact by Glaisher and a woman — his co-pilot was a man who’s not accounted for in the final project. (Himesh Patel of Yesterday plays a close friend of James’, but his character is defined by never joining Glaisher in the balloon.) Yet the reality of the situation, or lack thereof, is immaterial. The Aeronauts is, no matter how thrilling the action scenes are meant to be, just a bit too silly to take seriously. 

There’s a bit from an Eddie Izzard routine in which he talks about the kinds of films that England is known for: films in which one character enters a drawing room, encounters a second character who’s doing something like arranging matches, before the two stammer at each other and leave. This, in comparison to American films where there’s action and gunplay and car chases and vicious accusations of infidelity. When The Aeronauts takes to the air, it has a bit of excitement and thrilling visual splendor. But when it’s on the ground, this movie is much like that Izzard routine — a lot of stammering in place of dramatic heft, and not a whole lot else.

/Film Rating: 4 out of 10

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