Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Aloft: Tom Harper’s The Aeronauts

Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones in The Aeronauts.

 . . . [A]ll balloon flights are naturally three-act dramas. The First Act is the launch: the human drama of plans, hopes, expectations. The Second Act is the flight itself: the realities, the visions, the possible discoveries. The Final Act is the landing, the least predictable, most perilous part of any ascent, which may bring triumph or disaster or (quite often) farce.
– Richard Holmes, Falling Upwards: How We Took to the Air
Amazon Studios put The Aeronauts, one of the best films of last year, in theaters for about two minutes, then relegated it to its Amazon Prime streaming service and ceased all marketing of it. (It’s a film made for the IMAX screen, but if you blinked, you missed your chance to see it there.) A grand romantic movie about a grand, romantic venture, the film is full of thrills, action, and magisterial beauty. Some of it is terrifying, some of it is comic, and all of it is satisfying. It reunites two great young actors, Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones, so entrancing together in the otherwise inane The Theory of Everything. It soars and it plummets, much like the particolored conveyance whose single voyage is the film’s focus. It’s breathtaking, often literally.

Director Tom Harper and screenwriter Jack Thorne take as their starting-off point the historical mid-19th-century meteorologist James Glaisher (Redmayne), who holds the ludicrous idea that it might be possible to predict the weather if one gathered and analyzed enough data. His colleagues at the Royal Society scoff at his notions and refuse to fund a balloon voyage that would break the current altitude record as well as allow Glaisher to collect atmospheric measurements at heights as yet unachieved. Glaisher teams up with the wholly fictional Amelia Wren (Jones), an experienced balloonist who lost her husband in an airship disaster. (To slow the too-rapid descent of a balloon and save his wife’s life, he jumped overboard to his death.) Wren helps acquire the necessary funds for the trip by staging it as a publicity stunt. She knows how to play to a crowd, providing carnival-barker trimmings and tricks for the voyage’s commencement, much to Glaisher’s disdain. Once the expedition starts, Glaisher fusses with his instruments, Wren breezily handles the piloting duties, and the balloon immediately gets caught in a thunderstorm. That’s only a small hint of the excitement in store.

Glaisher’s real pilot was male, Henry Tracy Coxwell. Harper and Thorne likely made the pilot female in order to cast Jones, and I can’t think of a better reason. Redmayne and Jones are sensational together. Redmayne is once again the nerd, but a far less socially awkward one than his Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything or Newt Scamander in the Fantastic Beasts movies. When his Glaisher stops looking at his instruments and gazes over the edge of the basket holding him in the sky, he’s enthralled by what he sees. His face lights up and that sly smile that never loses its charm slowly spreads across his face like the sun peeking out of the towering cumulus storm clouds they’ve just escaped from. Jones’s Wren is hyper-competent, despite the sadness of her loss and the terror of her dreams where she relives her husband’s freefall to oblivion. When serious trouble arises, it’s Wren who has to save them, performing feats of gut-wrenching derring-do. As the trek progresses, she and Glaisher each grow to appreciate the skills and talents the other possesses, and you know this team is one that will last.

Harper and Thorne take the Richard Holmes quote above and run with it. (Holmes’s lively and literary tome is the source for the film, but more as inspiration to be played with than as history to be accurately wrought.) Thorne clearly realizes there’s no need to improve on the structure Holmes has elucidated, so this single excursion is the movie. There are flashbacks, of course, including some lovely sequences with Tom Courtenay as Glaisher’s father, but it’s the film’s freewheeling bouyancy and the charisma of its two stars that inflate the structure so splendidly. Cinematographer George Steel provides images of wonder and awe. There are sequences that look like 18th-century lithographs or etchings of balloon rides brought to glorious life. A long shot of the balloon floating serenely, dwarfed by those billowing storm clouds, may be the most single beautiful shot in a film this year. (Production designers David Hindle and Christian Huband and art director Alice Sutton also do amazing work.)

Harper is a director to watch. He and Steel also worked on the 2016 BBC adaptation of War and Peace, with James Norton and Lily James, and the sequence where the Rostovs in their horse-drawn sleigh, on their way home from a holiday party, look up and see the Great Comet, is one I’ll never forget. With The Aeronauts, he untethers you from this earth for a while, leaving you floating, adrift, and enraptured.

Joe Mader has written on film and worked as a theater critic for various publications including the SF Weekly, The San Francisco Examiner,, and The Hollywood Reporter. He previously served as the managing director for the San Francisco theater company 42nd Street Moon. He currently works at Cisco Systems and writes on theater for his own blog, Scene 2.

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