Some tremendous effects and sweet-natured romantic imaginings lift this Victorian ballooning adventure – as Mary Poppins might have put it – up through the atmosphere, up where the air is clear.
It’s a likably unworldly flight of fancy, or semi-factuality. Tom Harper directs, reuniting Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones, who last appeared together in 2014 as Stephen Hawking and his wife Jane in The Theory of Everything. Now Redmayne is once again playing a scientist, the real-life pioneer James Glaisher, here dead set on proving to his pompous, mutton-chopped and top-hat-wearing colleagues that meteorology is more than a fad and if he can only get way up in one of these outrageously dangerous hot-air balloons he can make some some serious atmospheric readings.
Jones plays a fictional aeronaut, Amelia (as in Earhart) Wren, who finds herself having to help him; she is the brash crowd-pleaser and showbiz flier who basically meets-cute with the primly boyish scientist 40,000 feet up. Wren is given to turning cartwheels in front of cheering crowds before climbing into the balloon’s rickety wicker basket and bringing along her sweet little dog who has his own parachute.
Harper and his screenwriter Jack Thorne have taken their inspiration from the 2013 book Falling Upwards: How We Took To The Air by historian and biographer Richard Holmes and particularly the hair-raising and record-breaking balloon-flight taken by Glaisher and his scientific colleague Henry Coxwell – but poor old Coxwell has been here chucked out of the balloon flight of mythology and replaced by a made-up glamorous queen of the skies. Tom Courtenay and Anne Reid give gentle and sympathetic performances as James’s elderly parents, and James’s home life is revealed in flashback, as is the terrible tragic secret that haunts the widowed Wren.
There’s something amiably Quixotic about this recklessly dangerous flight, something innocent, and the vistas of the 19th-century London landscape are really quite something. (The Aeronauts was originally designed to be shown in Imax theatres, and shot with Imax cameras, but its producer Amazon has has disappointingly had a change of heart, restricting this film to a conventional theatrical run before streaming it on small screens, thus minimising its unique selling point: those gasp-inducing and vertiginous views which really put us, the audience, into the balloon.)
There is a bit of Scott and Shackleton here, even a bit of JM Barrie, with our two Victorian idealist-adventurers resembling Peter Pan and Wendy heading for the second star to the right and straight on till morning. There’s even a hint of Angela Carter in the film’s fantastical image of Wren, a veritable aeronautical trapeze artist. However, it’s surely pushing credibility that these two aviators would not wear gloves or any sort of woolly hats to fend off the extreme cold. As it is, Wren’s tresses are fetchingly adorned with icicles.
Inevitably, danger and high-anxiety suspense set in as the pair become delirious with excitement as they approach the altitude record. How dizzyingly high can they go? Worryingly, they are making these decisions under the influence of hypoxia, the lack of oxygen and thinness of the air is making them both loopy. Soon a desperate situation presents itself.
It is a film with charm and the chemistry between Jones and Redmayne has something rather platonic and even sibling-like, but that isn’t to say there isn’t a spark of sorts. But really, this is like a theatrical two-hander if those terrific special effects are underplayed. Can’t we persuade Jeff Bezos to reverse this decision and put The Aeronauts back on Imax?