t’s a safe bet that very few people know about the pioneering ninety-minute hot air balloon flight that took place above England in 1862, but since it paved the way for the entire concept of weather forecasting, its a story that may well be worth a couple hours of your time. And fortunately that small slice of history gets its due in The Aeronauts, a compelling, based-on-a-true-story film from director Tom Harper and Wonder scribe Jack Thorne.
Dr. James Glaisher (Eddie Redmayne) is convinced that studying the atmosphere can lead to advancements in meteorology and petitions the British Royal Society to fund a hot air balloon expedition. After he’s laughed from the room, he then turns to celebrated balloonist Amelia Wren (Felicity Jones), but she rejects him, too, having lost her own husband in a ballooning accident years earlier. Eventually, though, she agrees to take him up, and The Aeronauts takes flight.
Harper, who helmed the BBC’s 2016 War and Peace miniseries, has created a visual wonderland that takes audiences high into the clouds, through thunderstorms, and back down to Earth again in brilliant fashion. As Glaisher is manning his thermometers and other scientific gizmos, Wren is busy keeping the balloon in the air, and the vast majority of the goings-on unfold before us in the five-by-seven basket. Using a combination of studio sets and a series of real-life flights that took Jones and Redmayne 8,000 feet up, Harper makes the whole thing feel very, very real. And when Glaisher’s determination to literally push the envelope results in a death-defying ascension higher than any human has ever been, The Aeronauts morphs into a superbly gripping survival story.
Jones and Redmayne, who capitalize on the rapport they built co-starring in 2014’s The Theory of Everything, give utterly captivating performances that can’t help but pull you in. Added to that is the outstanding camera work by Harper’s frequent cinematographer George Steel (Peaky Blinders) and a moving score by Gravity composer Steven Price.
When the end credits begin to scroll, you may find yourself wishing for a footnote that reveals more about our heroes, but it turns out there’s a good reason for its omission. Wren is a fictional character created, as the filmmakers have since explained, to reflect these “contemporary times”. Liberties, obviously, are an almost essential component of any based-on-a-true-story movie script, and one that provides us with a tough-as-nails, female adventurist hero is certainly an acceptable one to take—even though it shafts Glaisher’s real pilot, the very male Henry Coxwell.
Sure, the Royal Society may have a bone to pick with the film, but everyone else can enjoy The Aeronauts as a high-flying bit of adventure, stuffed with verisimilitude and almost palpable inspiration. It’s an entertaining ride for all ages—and if it makes you pause for a second the next time you flip on The Weather Channel and appreciate how it came to be, all the better.