“Would you like to ride in my beautiful balloon?” the 5th Dimension sang.
With all due respect to the ‘60s pop group, no, I don’t wish to go anywhere near a balloon after witnessing the death-defying escapades of The Aeronauts. I’m content to stay on the ground, in the cinema, living vicariously through the imagination of director Tom Harper (Wild Rose), the pen of Jack Thorne and the performances of Felicity Jones and Eddie Redmayne.
Set in London in 1862, The Aeronauts chronicles an attempt to break the altitude record (in a coal-gas balloon) while making important discoveries about atmospheric conditions and weather prediction. It combines and conflates the mostly true stories of pioneering scientist James Glaisher (Redmayne) with those of famed balloonists Henry Coxwell, Sophie Blanchard and Margaret Graham.
The amalgamation recounts a real voyage of Glaisher and Coxwell, which was detailed in Richard Holmes' 2013 book Falling Upwards: How We Took to the Air. But the film replaces Coxwell with a female composite. That fictional character is Amelia Wren (note the naming nod to Amelia Earhart), and Jones portrays her wonderfully, thanks in part to her undeniable chemistry with Redmayne (her co-star in The Theory of Everything), who is just as impressive. And legendary British actor Tom Courtenay adds narrative depth as Glaisher’s father.
Some would quibble with the script’s creative license, and, indeed, Coxwell’s absence is historically troubling. But the reimagined version allows the filmmakers to somewhat honor the scientific achievements of the men of the 1860s while referencing the contribution of equally brave women from the first half of the 19th century and concocting a family-friendly mix of fantasy and non-fiction.
One of the most exhilarating and emotionally rewarding adventure films of the year, The Aeronauts is to 19th-century ballooning what Ford v Ferrari is to 1960s auto racing (though the latter film is substantially better). And while The Aeronauts often embraces spectacle and ridiculousness over nuanced storytelling, it should be commended for its production design, cinematography and stunt work, which required Jones and Redmayne to crash-land in a real balloon, barely avoiding serious injury. (Take that, green screen!)
“Together we’ve brought the stars closer,” James tells Amelia. And he’s not blowing hot air, as this film is a gas.