TIFF REVIEW – ‘The Aeronauts’ is one of the most enjoyable cinematic adventures you will take this year

In all honesty, the sales pitch for The Aeronauts doesn’t sound all that particularly enticing. Witness the daring 19th-century adventure of a mismatched British scientist and pilot, as they head off in a hot-air balloon to learn about weather prediction and break the world record for flight altitude. Sounds enthralling, right? But hold your horses. This impeccably crafted and surprisingly thrilling little gem is ultimately one of the year’s biggest surprise packages.

The reteaming of The Theory of Everything duo Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones proves the first time was no fluke with the two charismatic actors crafting another gorgeous double act that’s endlessly charming and wonderfully entertaining. Their terrific performances are only elevated by the breathtaking visual spectacle surrounding them, which declares an adventure set in the sky can be just as heart-racing as anything set in outer space.

Set in 1862 London, stuffy yet earnest scientist James Glaisher (Redmayne) is keen to make a name for himself. After his bold claims of a future where science can be utilised to measure and predict the weather are laughed at by his Royal Society colleagues, Glaisher is desperate to prove the value of meteorology. Joining forces with brash and gifted aeronaut Amelia Wren (Jones), Glaisher plans to rise high into the sky in a hot-air balloon to take atmospheric readings to further his meteorological studies.

But Wren has her own ambitions for the dangerous mission, namely breaking the current world record for flight altitude at 26,000 feet in the hopes it will provide some redemption for a past tragedy she’s still constantly haunted by. With the assistance of Glaisher’s close friend John Trew (Himesh Patel), the pair launch their mission from a local county fair, with Wren providing plenty of elaborate theatrics to entertain the roaring spectators who have gathered to see them off.

As they elevate further into the sky, Glaisher begins to uncover a cavalcade of previously undiscovered scientific secrets hiding above the clouds. But his desire to journey higher in the hopes of learning more, coupled with Wren’s obsession to shatter the world record, soon sees the duo facing a calamity of perilous life-threatening dangers. The question now facing the aeronauts is not how high they can travel but will they ever make it back alive.

At its heart, The Aeronauts is a very British period biopic, filled with very British period biopic clichés. Well, it’s really only half a biopic, as Wren is an entirely fictional character, inspired by several noted female balloonists. Glaisher’s record-breaking balloon expedition was actually undertaken with British aeronaut Henry Coxwell, who, much to the dismay of the Royal Society, has been tossed overboard in favour of a made-up female protagonist instead.

If you’re a history buff (or a hot-air balloon enthusiast, which I’m assuming is a thing), this fabrication is sure to cause all sorts of offence. However, there’s clearly a strong narrative purpose for this twist in history that makes it somewhat permissible. Yes, this piece of revisionist history is getting a free pass. No disrespect to Coxwell, but the idea of two 19th-century British men riding in a hot-air balloon doesn’t sound nearly as cinematically interesting as a mismatched male/female duo who are total opposites of each other.

It’s the chance to see Redmayne and Jones together again on-screen which also makes this historical inaccuracy all the more forgivable. As was abundantly evident in their first film, the pair have such earnest chemistry and make two truly terrific lead characters. But their connection here proves to be something entirely different, given Glaisher and Wren begin the film completely at odds with each other with their battle of wits only growing stronger as they rise higher. Yet, unsurprisingly, their mutual unrelenting ambition begins to unite them, forcing the pair to work together to survive. Thankfully, their connection remains platonic, refusing to fall into an unnecessary sappy romance subplot.

While this is inherently Redmayne’s film, it’s Jones who continually steals focus, particularly as Wren consequently takes full charge of this narrative in the film’s spectacular third act. Redmayne is typically dapper and charming as the beleaguered scientist with a chip on his shoulder. Sadly, his character is relatively underdeveloped, even with the gift of an endearing backstory involving his dementia-afflicted father, Arthur (Tom Courtenay). But it’s Wren’s flashback moments that provide far more intrigue, as we learn more of a disastrous past balloon expedition with her late husband, Pierre (Vincent Perez).

It’s not entirely Redmayne’s fault Jones owns this film. Glaisher is somewhat of a stuffed shirt for most of the film, only truly opening up in the latter stages. Meanwhile, Wren is so bright and bursting with vigour, every inch the daring explorer of the skies that were the brave aeronauts of the 18th century. Before the expedition hits trouble, Wren is genuinely enjoying every moment, inviting an audience to do just the same. Jones captures the high energy of her character with deft assurance, but it’s when she’s required to perform a few outrageous physical feats that her performance hits a new level.

In the film’s greatest sequence, Wren is forced to scale the outside of the frost-covered hot-air balloon, in a desperate attempt to reach its peak before she loses consciousness from a lack of oxygen. As Wren battles against the ghastly elements, debilitating hypothermia, and her waning energy, you can’t help but hold your breath. It’s also a testament to Jones’ committed performance how authentic this moment ultimately appears. It’s genuine edge-of-your-seat cinema, made only the more gripping by this film’s incredible production values.

While The Aeronauts is due to drop on Amazon Prime after a brief theatrical run, this film really demands to be seen on the largest screen possible. Through a seamless mix of CGI effects and stunning cinematography from George Steel, the visuals are a dazzling treat for the eyes. It’s such an enchanting sight to see the hokey little hot-air balloon gliding through the majesty of dominating white clouds, but it’s when our duo hit an unexpected storm or when freezing temperatures bring flurries of snow that the CGI work really comes to life. Coupled with gorgeous period production design by David Hindle and Christian Huband, it’s visual artistry that just will not shine quite as brightly on a television screen.

It’s always a joy when a film can completely surprise you, and that’s entirely what The Aeronauts has the potential to do. If you’ve ever suffered through the insufferable bore that is Around the World in 80 Days, you’re likely assuming you never need another hot-air balloon adventure film in your life. But there are genuine thrills and joyous excitement to be found here, elevated by the captivating reteaming of Redmayne and Jones, who, quite frankly, should clearly make another dozen films together. At a breezy 101 minutes, The Aeronauts is a blissful journey into the sky that’s one of the most surprisingly enjoyable cinematic adventures you will take this year.

Distributor: Amazon Studios
Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones, Phoebe Fox, Himesh Patel, Rebecca Front, Robert Glenister, Vincent Perez, Anne Reid, Tom Courtenay
Director: Tom Harper
Producers: Todd Lieberman, David Hoberman, Tom Harper
Screenplay: Jack Thorne
Cinematography: George Steel
Production Design: Christian Huband, David Hindle
Music: Steven Price

Editing: Mark Eckersley
Running Time: 101 minutes
Release Date: TBC (Australia)