As an established film journalist and member of the Indiana Film Journalists Association, I must confess that every year about this time leaves me feeling giddy like a child at Christmas as screener upon screener arrives at my doorstep awaiting my screening, review and, at least studios hope, my support during the soon to arrive awards season.
Each year also brings with it a handful of films that my fellow critics and I consider to be head-scratchers, films that may not necessarily be "bad" films but they fall woefully short of anything resembling awards season fodder yet here they arrive with their beautiful packaging and eloquently worded press releases.
The Aeronauts is such a film, a not necessarily bad film that nevertheless feels woefully out of place amongst such awards season fodder as The Irishman, Marriage Story, Jojo Rabbit and a host of others. While The Aeronauts carries with it a certain critical pedigree, after all, it co-stars both Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones, the Amazon Studios release is a historical fantasy of sorts decidedly lacking on the actual fantasy and barely compelling enough to warrant a theatrical release let alone an actual push of any type for awards season.
Director Tom Harper, who also gave us the winning Wild Rose this year, begins The Aeronauts as Amelia (Felicity Jones), a bereaved balloon pilot still grieving the death of her husband in a ballooning accident, and James (Eddie Redmayne), a scientist whose ideas are often laughed at by his colleagues, are about to embark on their 19th century adventure amongst the clouds and with tremendous fanfare.
Inspired by a true story, Redmayne's James is based upon British scientist James Glaisher, who truly did break the height record portrayed in The Aeronauts, though he did so alongside Henry Coxwell but is here replaced by Jones's Amelia. Amelia seems to be a bit of a hybrid of several such balloon pilots of the day including Coxwell and one Sophie Blanchard, whose story closely aligns with that of Amelia.
The Aeronauts is a perfectly watchable film, occasionally quite engaging and even rather fantastic in moments. Jones and Redmayne have proven time and again to have remarkable chemistry and they're both engaging, charismatic performers who make nearly every project they work on a better project. Co-written by Harper with Jack Thorne, The Aeronauts initially gets mired down in its portrayal of the personality differences between Amelia and James but it soon rights itself and becomes a more emotionally grounded, beautiful to behold film.
Redmayne's James is rather singularly ambitious, though not obnoxiously so. The Aeronauts wisely avoids making either character truly unlikable, though it's immensely true that Amelia has the more engaging, emotionally involving storyline. The Aeronauts also seems to intentionally avoid turning itself into a feminist manifesto, Amelia's drive to become a balloon pilot primarily about her own goals rather than any more universal speaking out and up for women. In a sense, this makes it play as, perhaps, an even stronger feminist voice.
The Aeronauts really soars on the strength of its production values including D.P. George Steel's creative, engaging camera angles and ability to capture the stressful tension in CGI-laden, death-defying stunts. Mark Eckersley's editing for the film is nicely paced and the film's CGI is for the most part tremendously effective. 19th century England is portrayed with a certain grittiness, while The Aeronauts nicely captures the uncertainty as James and Amelia's balloon climbs higher and the scientific truths that we take now for granted begin to reveal themselves in ways that feel authentic and true.
The Aeronauts becomes a more emotionally riveting film as time moves on and Redmayne and Jones move from playful flirtation into the realm of "Can we land safely on the ground again?" Both performers may pull off playful quite nicely, but it's nice to seem them immerse themselves in their mostly paper-thin characters as the story evolves and the risks increase.
The Aeronauts is certainly a bit of a head-scratcher when it comes to awards season consideration, but for those who seek a bit of historical fantasy with light romance it's an engaging, occasionally quite entertaining motion picture that likely comes to life even better on the big screen, where it opens this weekend than on Amazon Prime where it's likely headed in the near future.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic