It’s 1862 London, and the historically very-real scientist and self-proclaimed meteorologist James Glaisher (Eddie Redmayne) desperately wants to rise higher than any other aeronautical explorer in a balloon to test his own atmospheric theories. The problem, he himself is not an aeronaut, nor does he have a balloon. The Royal Society room full of stuffy, blustery, white-mutton-chopped old white guys don’t take him seriously, that’s for sure. But he pins his hopes on one famous aeronaut to be his pilot: Amelia Rennes (Felicity Jones). Amelia’s famous aeronaut husband lost his life in a tragic ballooning incident, but James pins his hopes that the lure of the skies will pull Amelia out of mourning.
The unfortunately not-real Amelia is apparently a conglomeration of several historical characters. Her presence in this “inspired by true events” story most notably pushes historic Glashier’s actual pilot, one Henry Coxwell, out of the metaphorical plot-basket, unceremoniously plummeting him to the land of Hollywood revisionist history. For Coxwell’s sake, that quite honestly sucks. But for the movie’s sake, having Amelia in the role as the super-knowledgeable pilot literally elevates it as a crowd-pleaser that I know I totally would have dug as kid. Amelia knows how to put on a show for investors (watch her fling her dog out of the rising balloon [my audience gasped] only to have a parachute open, letting the pup drift down into the crowd’s arms). But she also knows what the heck she is doing, as it very quickly becomes clear.
My movie-buddy pointed out that of the two leads, Redmayne plays the fairer sex this time around. Jones is the one who really gets to have all the fun, and experiences most of the jaw-dropping stunts and peril as the twosome’s balloon rises higher and higher to where no man or woman has gone before. Viewers need to remind themselves James and Amelia are literally just hanging out in a wicker basket at elevations where jumbo jets fly and Mount Everest climbers haul oxygen tanks to survive.
But like the air at 30,000 feet, The Aeronauts is thin when it comes to character development and plot (beyond the almost real-time balloon adventure). We see glimpses of James and Amelia’s life outside of ballooning, which is not much, and it seems to tread dangerously close to becoming a love story (because, you know, man and woman, and Hollywood). So, it works best when it sticks to the ballooning. Ballooning seems almost a rudimentary way to explore the skies for modern audiences, but The Aeronauts infuses the sky with the simple wonder of the unknown, and at those points, the film finds inspiration.