Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones teamed up once before in The Theory of Everything, for which he won an Oscar and she got a nomination. They’re back together for The Aeronauts, but this time, she is the lead character and he’s in the supporting role. For all this historical film’s flaws, this adventure yarn is quite the showcase for her.
The story begins in September 1862 in London with a hot-air balloon flight piloted by Amelia Wren (Jones), a woman who is tormented by memories of her last flight, which ended in the death of her French husband who taught her to fly. Her sole passenger on the current voyage is James Glaisher (Redmayne), a scientist roundly mocked by his peers for his belief that weather patterns can be predicted. He aims to prove them wrong, but can only do so by conducting scientific experiments at altitude.
I’m not a stickler for historical accuracy, but the film fabricates a big thing. The part concerning Glaisher is pretty much true, but his balloon pilot was a man named Henry Coxwell, who’s not mentioned in the film at all. The character of Amelia is a composite of several women who did, in fact, fly balloons during the Victorian era. The balloon did rise too high, as it does in the film, and Coxwell did much of the heroics to save their lives that the movie depicts Amelia doing. Beyond the qualities of Jones’ performance, I’m not sure why the filmmakers change this historical figure to a woman.
(On a somewhat related note, the film also casts Yesterday’s Himesh Patel as John Trew, Glaisher’s entomologist friend. Color-blind casting can be great, but when you take it to a logical extreme, you get Julia Roberts playing Harriet Tubman. On the evidence of this and last year’s Mary Queen of Scots, the British are doing this wrong.)
Director Tom Harper, whose previous film Wild Rose came out just this past summer, does better with the elements of spectacle here. Thanks to an inaccurate weather prediction by Glaisher, the balloon flies through a thundercloud, and while this did not happen on the real Glaisher’s flight, it gives us a chance to see just how dangerous balloon flights were back then, as the storm tosses the balloon’s occupants up out of the basket. These bits make up for the clunky flashback sequences that show the two balloonists’ lives before the trip.
We first see Jones’ Amelia doing back handsprings in a ridiculous dress for a cheering crowd and delivering a practiced spiel about how they’re going to ascend beyond the clouds. Then, once the balloon is out of sight, she snaps out of the entertainer persona, wipes off her makeup, and instantly becomes all business at the helm. This is impressive, but you can’t miss the film’s climactic sequence, when Amelia finds the gas-release valve frozen, leaving her unable to stop the airship’s ascent. With frostbitten fingers that leave her unable to grasp the ropes with her hands, she has to scale the rigging all the way to the top of the balloon to open the valve manually. Seeing her hanging from a rope back with 35,000 feet of air below her, I’ll admit I was surprised to see this kind of raw physical performance from Jones — you would have thought Rogue One would have given her that chance, but no. This film understands what Captain Marvel did and Charlie’s Angels didn’t: If you want people to think that your heroine is cool and important, don’t treat her that way. Just show her doing cool and important stuff. It’s during these moments that The Aeronauts achieves liftoff.
Starring Felicity Jones and Eddie Redmayne. Directed by Tom Harper. Written by Jack Thorne. Rated PG-13.