One of the most beautifully filmed movies in recent memory, THE AERONAUTS, based on the book, “Falling Upwards” by Richard Holmes, reunites the dynamic couple Felicity Jones and Eddie Redmayne from THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING. Directed by Tom Harper, with a screenplay by Jack Thorne, THE AERONAUTS is a breathtaking and thrilling account of James Glaisher’s record-setting feat in 1862 England.
Glaisher (Redmayne), an aspiring meteorologist, turns to Amelia Wren (Jones) to pilot a gas balloon so he can prove his theories regarding weather patterns, and ultimately fly higher than anyone else in history. Wren is initially skeptical for several reasons, one being she lost her husband in a ballooning tragedy and she’s not convinced she’s ready to fly again.
Persuaded by Glaisher’s best friend, John Trew (Himesh Patel), Amelia acquiesces, and on September 5, 1862, the Mammoth, a huge red and white striped silk balloon, takes flight with Glaisher and his equipment --- and Amelia piloting.
In reality, Glaisher was accompanied by a male aeronaut, Henry Coxwell. Amelia is a fictional character Thorne fashioned after the first woman to pilot a balloon, Sophie Blanchard. It obviously makes for a much more interesting story, and especially with the pairing of Jones and Redmayne.
These two Oscar-nominated actors --- with Redmayne winning for Best Actor in THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING ---are truly special together. They share a chemistry that is rare, yet impossibly duplicated as we see here. Seventy percent of THE AERONAUTS is the two of them alone in the basket of the Mammoth, and yet they never wear out their welcome. I swear neither has aged a day since filming THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING --- and they seem so completely happy to be in one another’s company again.
But what truly makes THE AERONAUTS so uniquely different is the stunning cinematography by George Steel. As Glaisher and Amelia soar to new heights, the layers of the atmosphere are clearly documented by Glaisher, starting with the cloudy day of September 5th.
And as they begin their climb, the clouds turn into a brutal thunderstorm which threatens their survival. Once they ascend above the clouds, the sunlight provides an almost mystical experience as they encounter what is essentially a circular rainbow, a swarm of butterflies and the pristine beauty of their surroundings.
All of this is soon replaced by frost, snow and then perilous ice when the balloon becomes frozen and their descent looms impossible. And Steel’s keen eye captures all of this with his camerawork. Holmes has stated that “ballooning is sort of dreamlike”, and Thorne and Steel have capitalized on that feeling with the fantastical script and gorgeous photography.
THE AERONAUTS may be a period piece, but it does include some rather thrilling scenes. Amelia’s death-defying climb up the side of the balloon to break through the frozen cap to allow their descent is riveting. Jones did part of the climb in a studio with her stunt double, Helen Bailey, completing the task 3000 feet up in the air. Harper and Steel make it so terrifying --- and yet believable.
There is one moment early on in THE AERONAUTS involving a small dog which almost gave me a heart attack. There are several more throughout the movie. It’s a fun ride with one of our favorite couples --- we’ve met them both on separate occasions (for cocktails) --- so we are partial!
Opinion: See It Now!
After witnessing the perilous white-knuckle scenes in which two gas balloonists find themselves, the obvious question is --- why would anyone want to do this sort of thing? The answer lies in THE AERONAUTS. In 1862, British scientist/meteorologist, James Glaisher (Eddie Redmayne), was on a mission to soar higher than anyone before him to prove that he could predict extreme weather conditions for the good of mankind.
Glaisher, in his real-life career, teamed with another man, Henry Coxwell, who is not mentioned in the film. Instead, director Tom Harper, along with writer Jack Thorne, have created fictitious gas balloon pilot Amelia Wren (Felicity Jones) to accompany Glaisher in his scientific pursuits. James needed Amelia because she could actually fly it!
The pairing of Jones and Redmayne is a reunion of their highly successful movie, THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING, for which Redmayne won the Academy Award for Best Actor, and she was Oscar-nominated. In THE AERONAUTS, the two have a passion for ballooning, but not for each other. This is not a romantic endeavor in any way.
They are strictly daredevil partners who share an incredibly dangerous, death-defying adventure. Together they weather --- no pun intended --- a violent thunderstorm some 23,000 feet in the air. Later they battle against severe cold at a record-breaking 37,000 feet --- over seven miles
vertically --- risking severe frostbite amid the possibility of never making it back to the Earth’s surface.
There is one wonderfully photographed sequence where Glaisher is unconscious, and Wren must negotiate the outer surface of the frozen balloon to kick open the small hatch at the top, called the valve line, in order to descend to safety. One of her shoes is lodged in the valve line to keep it open. It’s a harrowing experience, both for Wren and the viewer.
The filmmakers built a true-to-life replica of a 19th century gas balloon. It is astonishing photography by cinematographer George Steel. And when Amelia finds herself swinging upside down on a rope, it is especially fascinating when she swings herself back into the basket, even as James is passed out with high-altitude hypoxia.
Unfortunately, during some of the action scenes, there is much unintelligible dialogue, often drowned out by sound effects and Steven Price’s exhilarating music. He did win an Oscar in 2014 for GRAVITY. What is not apparent in the movie are the scientific discoveries as a result of their escapade, only vaguely referred to by Glaisher as he addresses the British Meteorological Society, whose members were initially skeptical. Jeanne and I expected some sort of closing commentary regarding his results, which never came.
THE AERONAUTS is an ambitious film, especially considering how much of the movie’s running time takes place in the air with the two stars alone in the balloon’s basket. Jones and Redmayne were, indeed, filmed at some 2000 feet up for some of the shots. As I watched this story unfold, I thought of the valiant camera crew who was filming at such high altitudes --- while inside a helicopter.
Opinion: Mild See It Now!