When I first heard about The Aeronauts, I did not 100 percent believe that it was real. Not that I thought it was a hoax or anything, just that it seemed much more like a 30 Rock parody than an actual movie someone spent millions of dollars on. Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones, reuniting for another British period piece five years after The Theory of Everything? In a movie about Victorian hot-air balloonists? Called, again, The Aeronauts? Sure. Tell me, how is Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance as Lord Worthington?
But having seen the film’s Canadian premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, I can confirm: The Aeronauts is not just real, it is occasionally spectacular. Not spectacular as in excellent, mind you, or even amazeballs, which Google inexplicably lists among the synonyms. I’m talking spectacular as in full of spectacle, which is a distinction you come to appreciate while watching The Aeronauts.
Saying The Aeronauts is spectacular is also different from saying The Aeronauts is not the kind of movie you think it is, because it absolutely is. This is a movie where Redmayne’s scientist glumly tells Jones, “I cannot quantify what you’ve lost,” and wistfully says, “My hygrometer has seen better days.” A movie where Redmayne’s haughty science rivals chuckle when they say “meteorologist,” then chuckle harder when they say “woman.” A movie where every supporting character, no matter how good or evil, walks around with a beard covering 83 percent of their face.
The plot, if you weren’t immediately sold on “Felicity Jones and Eddie Redmayne in a Victorian hot-air-balloon survival epic”: Jones plays Amelia Wren, an experienced balloon pilot who was once married to a French aeronaut. (That a character played by Felicity Jones has a name that sounds like “Emilia” is … rough.) Redmayne plays scientist James Glaisher, who is married to his scientific instruments, which he dreams of taking up into the sky so that he might one day be able to predict the weather. Together, they venture into the upper reaches of the troposphere, where they hope to break the record for highest human ascent ever recorded, and also maybe learn some fun things about clouds.
Director Tom Harper has fun contrasting the buttoned-up Glaisher with the relatively free-spirited (for a Victorian) Wren, who knows that to be a true aeronaut, you’ve got to give the people a little razzle-dazzle. It’s a lesson the movie’s also learned. These aviation pioneers have barely gotten off the ground before they’re caught in a terrible storm, and things only get worse from there. Like a 19th-century Gravity, the film throws every possible obstacle a hot-air balloon could face into the mix — save maybe a run-in with a flock of birds, which merely gets mentioned. Besides the storm, our aeronauts also have to deal with hypoxia, hypothermia, fluctuating pressure systems, and busted valves, plus the constant danger of falling thousands of feet to their deaths. (The mission in the movie is a highly fictionalized amalgamation of various early balloon flights; Glaischer was real, while Wren is a creation.) As they ascend, Harper goes wider and wider with his lenses, a witty touch that helps distract from the copious CGI, and also makes you think the actors might soon break into “One Day More.” The crowd at the Roy Thomson Hall had a few more empty spaces than at other TIFF premieres, but that helped give those that were there the feeling of having entered a special club. By the film’s audacious, high-wire-act climax, the audience was rapt — it felt like you could hear every single gasp. We were onboard, as the aeronauts risked tumbling off it.
Unfortunately, half of The Aeronauts takes place outside the balloon, and it’s these ground-bound scenes that weigh the movie down like so many bags of sand. The balloonists themselves are much less interesting than the perils they face, mostly a collection of tragic backstories and would-be inspirational speeches about how they’ve “brought the stars closer.” I don’t care about incremental scientific advances; I just want to see Felicity Jones mend a hot-air balloon while a frozen Eddie Redmayne nearly succumbs to altitude sickness!
Still, the movie gives us that and then some. Since the project was announced, it’s been easy to clown on The Aeronauts, and after the premiere, well, it’s still easy to clown on The Aeronauts. But from scrolling through reactions from those who had traveled with me in our own metaphorical wicker basket, I think I’ve noticed one more distinction: Some of the teasing, it now seems, is tinged with love.