starring Felicity Jones, Eddie Redmayne, Himesh Patel, Anne Reid
written by Jack Thorne
directed by Tom Harper
by Walter Chaw If you would've thought that a film about the early days of meteorology would be deadly and ridiculous: good call. Tom Harper's The Aeronauts imagines plucky meteorologist James Glashier (Eddie Redmayne) as a starry-eyed dreamer certain that one day humans will predict the weather badly in front of bluescreens. In pursuit of this, he enlists the aid of tragic hot-air balloonist (well, not hot air at that time--gas of some sort) Amilia Renne (Felicity Jones), a fictional character standing in for the real James Glashier's erstwhile ballooning companion, Henry Tracey Coxwell. See, all the names are hilarious: the Glashier that will not melt damn the torpedoes, the pretty flying "wren," and in real life there was a "Coxwell." Anyhow, Amelia, named after the other woman pilot you know the name of, is a showman, arriving late to the launching grounds riding on top of her carriage (can you imagine!) with her trick dog and her magic voice that carries several football pitches in every direction with no magnification. You can tell from the start that James doesn't approve of her showboating, except that the way the film is structured--as a series of flashbacks detailing their relationship--it's clear that James has sought her out because of her draw as a public attraction. You can tell from the start, too, that the real vertical ascent is the friends they'll become along the way.
The broader message of The Aeronauts seems to be that women should stay at home. The last moment we get with Amelia's also-plucky sister, Antonia (Phoebe Fox, the spitting image of Elizabeth Perkins), is Antonia assuring that her daughters will never follow in Amelia's heroic footsteps. There are a lot of beautifully-composited aerial scenes where Amelia inexplicably eschews safety lines while climbing her balloon heroically. The central set-piece revolves around her needing to scale the thing with frost-bitten hands to unclog a frozen vent--but she has a knife. See...she has a knife. It is fascinating to have Amelia be the hero while James is the quailing maiden, helpless to do a thing for himself and needing the intervention of a stronger human, but it's all undone by Amelia's obvious regret at having to do so. That said, I do marvel at how quickly her terrible frostbite heals, so maybe whatever.
The Aeronauts is finally just prestige-season awards fodder designed to be unloaded on prestige audiences this time of year, only to become another needle in the streaming haystack of distributor Amazon. The script is shockingly formulaic and the actors, though game, spend most of their best moments in extreme close-up, isolated from the excitement happening around them. The biggest tell is that the score is mixed at a noticeably higher volume than the massive storm effects. When that kind of thing happens: worry. The Aeronauts is an expensive project propelled by cheap emotional manipulation. The jokes about hot air or gas sort of write themselves.