A period drama about the weather really is peak British filmmaking. Corsets and barometers – what could be better? And they get to change the world.
Set in 1862, this is an exhilarating journey up, up and away; with breathtaking action and a thoughtful central relationship between a doer and a thinker, as balloon pilot Amelia Wren and weather scientist James Glaisher explore the atmosphere and try to break the world altitude record at the same time.
It’s even got animals: cute dog Posy (the subject of a brilliant joke early on which left our audience gasping), and several homing pigeons – the Victorian equivalent of computer back-ups, sent from the balloon bearing tiny casings full of Glaisher’s discoveries in case he and Amelia don’t make it back alive.
My 10 year old adored The Aeronauts – it’s a terrific watch for science-loving older children, as well as adults. (Though mums like me might fret, as the balloon takes the two explorers up into the sub-zero reaches of the atmosphere, that they aren’t wearing woolly hats. Try not to shout at the screen.)
Amelia (Felicity Jones) is a widowed balloon pilot who still hasn’t recovered from her husband’s death; Pierre died on one of their flights. She’s contacted by astronomer and meteorologist James Glaisher (Eddie Redmayne), a scientist mocked by fellow members of the Royal Society as he tries to build interest in weather prediction, convinced accurate forecasting can help save people from floods and famine.
She’s a showman and he’s shy and diffident, though her love of the spotlight is backed up by with ground-up knowledge of her balloon, while his single-mindedness can threaten to turn into into bullheadedness and even hubris.
At the launch, above a crowd of onlookers, Amelia delights the crowd cartwheeling around the dais in a short silk flowered crinoline; James looks embarrassed as he stacks his instruments in preparation.
The flight takes Amelia and James through sunshine, thunderstorms and snow. The actions she has to take to save them and their balloon are both thrilling and terrifying. (If you’re scared of heights do what I did and take a child with you; they tend to be made of sterner stuff.)
Watching Amelia climbing resolutely up the frozen, bulging balloon to the very top is hand-in-mouth stuff. The wide shots of the balloon, suddenly tiny in the huge sky, only make it worse (or is it better?) Meanwhile James lies almost comatose from altitude sickness in the basket.
I liked what The Aeronauts says about the expectations and realities of being a woman. In Amelia, girls have a genuine action heroine who battles the constrictions put on her, yet also trusts her instincts, something we learn to do to keep ourselves safe. Never one for the role of society wife, when she tells her sister Antonia this during the balloon’s manufacture, Antonia hits back with “you have to learn to want it”, the last word from someone who has settled.
Amelia is active, forward-thinking, brave and extraordinarily self-reliant, though she and James both (of course!) learn to depend on each other. She takes on the physical challenges from the start while he waits almost until the end; the inverse of those movies when the woman suddenly comes into her own as the film draws to a close.
The balloon itself, another silent character, is an object of real beauty. A tall elegant column filling out into a ball of candy stripes, when they reach the thin, frozen air the rope cross-hatching becomes so frosted with ice it looks like a giant, prettily-decorated cake.
Jones (who is superb) and Redmayne have wonderfully low-key chemistry; it’s joyous watching them battling each other for supremacy. Their performances, along with the gorgeously thrilling visuals, overcome a sometimes-hackneyed script and a plot as thin as the high-altitude air.
Their terrors are sometimes shot close up, jerkily, in the bottom of the basket, as it bounces through the storm. The visual effects are stunning, whether Amelia desperately climbing the balloon or wide shots of it making stately progress across a backdrop of shiny meringue peaks, flying into the unknown.
Tens of thousands of feet up, they’re still not entirely free; at their great moment of triumph, propriety, diffidence and her grief mean that as they connect they also turn away.
Their journey to this point is told in flashback. Other characters are by necessity only occasional visitors, and fit an expected template. Step forward various snooty Victorian gents in top hats; an underused Himesh Patel as Glaisher’s scientist friend Trew; a bright kid whose determination to borrow Trew’s telescope to track the pair’s progress mirrors that of the couple thousands of feet up in the basket; and Glaisher’s parents, with a scene-stealing Tom Courtenay as his dad Arthur, the man who introduced James to astronomy and is now suffering from dementia.
The Aeronauts is sometimes earnest, as James implores her to help him save people from droughts and floods, and can be endearingly clunky; Antonia (Phoebe Fox) even accuses her of trying to fly away from her problems on Earth.
I loved how the colours of the adventure unfolding above – azure skies, fluffy white marshmallow clouds, the browns and beiges of the basket and their ballooning outfits – are replicated on the ground. Women in gorgeous blue satin crinolines sit in brown and beige living rooms, thick snow falling outside.
The film is based on the true-life exploits of Glaisher, who undertook a similar balloon flight with fellow scientist Henry Coxwell, breaking the altitude record. Coxwell saved Glaisher’s life through his bravery and there’s been criticism that he’s been airbrushed from this film. Amelia Wren is based on a real woman, though: balloonist Sophie Blanchard.
Read our kids’ review of The Aeronauts by Ashton, aged 10
Watch the trailer for The Aeronauts now: