Amazon’s The Aeronauts is a grand adventure film that’s full of hot air.
Amazon may deserve more credit than many will give them for casting Felicity Jones as an action heroine even if the real figure was a man named Henry Coxwell. In the ’90s, a script would have been bought and reworked with Eddie Redmayne’s scientist (or every local television station meteorologist hero) James Glaisher ascending in the hot-air balloon with his trusty best friend, copilot Moose from Frasier. I guess, in Tom Harper’s The Aeronauts, progress wins the day and historical accuracy takes a holiday when it comes to stunt casting. It’s too bad for the script, which has highly effective adventure sequences but is full of hot air.
Amazon’s next attempt at cinema respectability is based on James Glaisher’s (Redmayne) balloon expedition to fly higher than anyone ever had in the history of the world. Glaisher, a driven scientist, even if a bit naive and liable to bury his head in the sand when it comes to risk, teams with a young but tough as nails widow named Amelia Wren (Jones), who has a history of womaning balloons with her late husband, Pierre (At Eternity’s Gates’ Vincent Perez). Her sister, Antonia (Blue Iguana‘s Phoebe Fox) wants her to stop having dalliances with adventure and try to find a new husband before time passes her by. So, she throws, quite literally, caution to the wind and helps Glaisher hover higher than anyone who has ever spoken of celestial navigation.
Tom Harper’s film has some grand visuals, and watching on Prime doesn’t take away from effects without any obvious green screen. It’s only enhanced by its wondrous musical score by Steven Price. Then you have the combination of Redmayne and Jones, their first film together since The Theory of Everything. Jones is a perfect choice as a woman of action, who can jump from beguiling to tomboy with the flip of her hair; Redmayne is the safe choice to play Glaishers’ determined scientist while adding his trademark earnest demeanor. They have enough chemistry between them to keep things interesting.
The Aeronauts is based on the book, Falling Upwards: How We Took to the Air by Richard Holmes and was adapted for the screen by scribe Jacob Thorne (Wonder). The script remains the issue; while you have to admire the adventure aspect, it only offers a surface level (no pun intended) examination of how their accomplishments were used to help predict weather patterns and the varying air levels in the atmosphere. It’s the writer’s job, yes, to entertain, but they also need to repeat relevant information in an enjoyable way.
We haven’t even gotten to the real issue, which is casting Jones in the part of Coxwell. It’s not that they wrote the part as a woman or slighting the accomplishment of Coxwell’s contribution (he was instrumental in the mission and saving Glaisher’s life), but the inspiration was clearly influenced by a real-life figure, Sophia Blanchard, whose flights with her husband, Pierre, are the basis of the Wren character. So, let me get this straight, we named Wren’s husband after the inspiration of Blanchard’s, but we don’t write a character named after a famous aeronaut, by the real person? You can argue it’s an amalgamation of several female scientists/aeronauts of the period, but if you are going to scrap history altogether, why not combine the two real-life figures in your own history in the first place?
The Aeronauts takes a light look at the science of its inspiration, commits too much time in the backstory of the Wren character that’s a figment of the imagination in the first place, and can’t be taken seriously as a biographical picture. If anything, it can be enjoyed as an escapist adventure picture but can be dismissed as balderdash.
M.N. Miller has been a film and television writer for Ready Steady Cut since August of 2018 and is patiently waiting for the next Pearl Jam album to come out.