‘The Aeronauts’ finds joy in flight

The Aeronauts” (2019) is rated PG-13 and currently available on Amazon Prime Video. (Amazon Studios / Courtesy Image)

(Originally published in The Bison student newspaper Fall 2020)

Amazon Studios’ “The Aeronauts” escapes the confinement of a single gas balloon basket by soaring across a spectrum of emotions.

Although loosely based on the true story of James Glaisher’s (Eddie Redmayne) meteorological achievements, under Tom Harper’s direction, the story of Amelia Wren (Felicity Jones) and Glaisher’s record-breaking balloon ride is much more than a mere scientific adventure film.

 The film cuts between their flight and the events leading up to it, providing visual relief, in the form of ballrooms and board meetings, from the constant stream of skyscapes and wicker balloon baskets that dominates the majority of George Steele’s cinematography.

This visual variety combines with the vitality of Jones and Redmayne’s dual protagonists to maintain the film’s energy. Roughly half the movie’s run time is dedicated to scenes between the two leads as they travel in the confined space of the balloon.

This story format demands truthfulness, vulnerability and selectivity from both actors to prevent the film from falling into a repetitive loop of scientific sounding jargon and circular dialogue.

And Jones and Redmayne rise to this challenge.

The subtle humanity of their performances, saturated with reality despite the almost certain heavy use of green screen due to logistics, carries the entire film.

Unlike the real-life figure of Glaisher, who broke the world record for the highest ever flight in the 1860s, balloon pilot Amelia Wren is a fictionalized compilation of several historical individuals, co-writer and director Harper said in a TIME interview. Wren’s amiably tempestuous relationship with her scientific passenger – complicated by her own past – drives the plot’s momentum.

Redmayne’s portrayal of her meteorologist friend radiates passion for the scientific potential of the journey, as he begs anyone and everyone to imagine what life would be like if humanity had the ability to predict the weather.

Their clashes, combined with the dangers of the very beginnings of human flight, effectively pull viewers to the edge of their seats.

The soundscape and simplistic altitude charts which punctuate the action serve to enhance the tension and wonder of Wren and Glaisher’s journey. Steven Price’s sparse musical score and the deliberate shifts from the balloon’s creaking ropes and rattling scientific instruments to total calm, magnifies the endless skies surrounding them.

It is this tableau which drives home the filmmaker’s insistence that science is not merely a series of dry facts. Rather, it is the act of marveling at the beauty, power and raw danger of nature. As Glaisher says in the film, “There’s nothing more beautiful, no more mysterious than the stars in the sky – and look at it. We are dancing among them.”

The stunning renderings of the upper atmosphere overshadow – both literally and figuratively – the warmth of the earthbound flashbacks in the film.

Lighting creates a stark contrast between the blinding white coldness of the skies and the candle-lit cordiality of Wren’s home and the ball where she first met Glaisher.

The details of the everyday world seem like faded dreams compared with the scenes in the sky – yet beautiful dreams. The dancing figures at the ball glow like jewels, adorned by Alexandra Byrne’s costumes.

In this lesser world, Glaisher struggles to find support and funding for his goal of studying meteorology from up in the sky – his only loyal supporter is John Trew (Hamish Patel).

Wren is fighting her own personal struggles with grief after the loss of her husband, former balloonist Pierre Rennes (Vincent Perez). She finds comfort in her own loyal companion, her sister, Antonia (Phoebe Fox), who’s lack of understanding Wren’s attraction to flight provides another layer of relational complexity to the film.

However, both Trew and Antonia fade into a memory, like everything else on earth, when the film returns to the sky after each flashback.

It is the heightened intensity of the flight scenes that remains in the viewer’s memories long after the end credits have come and gone. And this, it seems, is intentional.

This 2019 release from Amazon Studios challenges its viewers to embrace the joy of nature’s wonders.

As the Latin Text circling the balloon’s base reads, “Surely the sky lies open, let us go that way.”

Run Time: 1h. 40 min.

4.8/5.0 Stars