The Aeronauts — Review

The Aeronauts
Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones in a scene from Tom Harper’s The Aeronauts


“It’s a movie with a fine cast and impeccable technical credentials, but it doesn’t do them any justice as it wanders through a muddled script that never fully realizes its exhilarating potential.”

by Ken Bakely

There is a chilly distance all throughout Tom Harper’s The Aeronauts. It’s a movie with a fine cast and impeccable technical credentials, but it doesn’t do them any justice as it wanders through a muddled script that never fully realizes its exhilarating potential. From the vantage point of an 1862 hot air balloon flight, in which aeronauts James Glashier (Eddie Redmayne) and Amelia Wren (Felicity Jones), take to the air above London in a record-breaking excursion, the film studies their lives and backgrounds, cutting back and forth between the past and their present (a present which happens to be tens of thousands of feet above the ground). James, a dramatization of the real-life scientist, is motivated by a desire to legitimize for the budding field of meteorology. Amelia, a fictional amalgamation of several actual women, is a spirited and outgoing personality who sharply contrasts with the deadly seriousness of her colleague. While the lengthy flashbacks serve to explain their personalities and motivations as well as the leadup to this precise flight, they also cut up the rhythm of the film, keeping any one element from shaping the proceedings. The scenes of flight, with Jones and Redmayne’s fine acting and top-notch effects, are so much more memorable and accomplished than the merely perfunctory, paint-by-numbers nature of the flashback scenes. 

Though to be sure, it’s certainly hard to discount just how well-done the flight sequences are. It’s stunning to watch James and Amelia maneuver above the clouds, with the mounting dangers they encounter in the journey providing for some positively gripping moments of sheer peril. But when The Aeronauts’s strengths are so lopsided in one direction, every cut away from the balloon plays with increasing dismay. The script takes complex and intense characters and reduces their motivations to bland types: personal challenges, career struggles, and scientific innovations are all rolled into a numbing sameness that comes out in dribs and drabs. The choice to invent a character entirely, in Amelia, turns out to be an even more befuddling decision. Though Jones is good in the role, she’s not given a lot to work with, as the character’s backstory is again victim to a script that reduces the onscreen events to their most simplified interpretations. The mixture of personal and professional hardships she faces, which are gradually revealed throughout, are undoubtedly interesting on paper and should be the makings of a deeply compelling journey. But since the film doesn’t really examine much of anything in depth, the treatment of just about every theme feels rote. Certainly James’s background and challenges are hardly given any more emphasis. The characters don’t grow as much as they merely continue to exist, and for a story ostensibly about overcoming adversity, embarking on exciting and dangerous adventures, and pushing forward into uncharted territory, that’s a problem so direct it borders on the ironic.

At first, it doesn’t make sense that the movie would falter so much in this respect. Harper’s last film, Wild Rose, proved his ability as a capable dramatic filmmaker to stunning effect. He is a good director of actors and can helm character profiles with great insight. But what’s missing here is a real drive behind all the talent on display, in front of and behind the camera. The film never makes any truly faulty missteps, but too often seems to navigate without a map. We end up studying a vast array of what could have been, with the various struggles of the two characters potentially providing for compelling stories, if only they were given more detail, nuance, or comparative attention to develop into their own narrative and thematic arcs. Even in the relatively short runtime of the film, James and Amelia prove the potential to be so much more than the flat set of character traits that the script relegates them to. These plotting oversights make for some truly dull stretches, with the movie simply coming off as too slight in the balance. The effect is that, though The Aeronauts has so much working for it, the positive and negative mix together in the mind, and the whole thing plays as middling and underwhelming.