“The sky lies open” and the quest is ready to begin. Having Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones reunite after their stunning performances in The Theory of Everything is welcomingly familiar. In The Aeornauts, Redmayne portrays the real-life character of James Glaisher, a 19th-century astronomer, meteorologist and pioneer of weather forecasting. Jones creates the fictionalised and vibrant Amelia Rennes, known for her showmanship and skill in piloting a hot air balloon. This thrilling Amazon-backed adventure, crafted from the screenplay of Jack Thorne and co-writer and director Tom Harper, takes Glaisher and Rennes floating high into the clouds in a wicker basket, offering magical moments of majesty and wonder.
The Aeronauts is concerned more with fantasy than with fact. It’s only loosely based on the feats of James Glaisher and Henry Tracey Coxwell, who, in 1862, flew higher into the atmosphere than anyone had ever done before. Glaisher wants to take the journey to prove that weather can be measured and predicted. The imagined Amelia Rennes is the true adventurer in this film, contributing a festive style and heroic ability that contrasts neatly to Glaisher’s scientific approach to the endeavour. She is “the woman who provokes fear in all men”, yet is occasionally paralysed by a memory of an earlier flight that changed her life in all the wrong ways. In flashbacks of insight, details are revealed of Glaisher’s fight to convince the Royal Society of the value of his scientific research, while at home seeing his father (Tom Courtenay) become diminished by Alzheimer’s. With Rennes’ memories, we learn of her lost years to a depression that keeps her firmly on the ground and her guardian sister (Phoebe Fox) forcing her back into society’s reach. There comes a critical point of her decision when John Trew (Himesh Patel), a colleague and friend of Glaisher, declares “Some reach for the stars, some push others toward them.”
The computer graphics involved in this film allow the story to soar higher than its reported 37,000 feet. The CGI techniques create a convincing 1860 London and the crowd gathered at a fete in Greenwich. Rennes understands that the spectators who are gathered to see them set off need a show and so she arrives in theatrical style and flair. With the balloon’s ascent, the odyssey between Glaisher and Rennes unfolds. They look down on the English landscape and then up to the unknown nature of the clouds. More sandbags are released and the balloon rises into an unexpected battle with a thunderstorm, tossing the craft and its inhabitants about like a rudderless ship in stormy seas. There are moments of glorious wonder as the sun creates a rainbow silhouette of their balloon on the white canvas of the sky, and then again when a kaleidoscope of butterflies appears at 17,160 feet above the earth. The heart-stopping effort of Rennes’ heroism is showcased in masterful ways. As Glaisher observes in a tender moment “I don’t know what you did for me out there, but I have no doubt that it was a great act.”The Aeronauts is successful not only because of the skilled engagement between Redmayne and Jones but thanks to their characters' matched qualities of aspiration, skill and mission. The two are opposites, of course, and they attract each other, but it’s their drive and ambition that unites them to deliver a gripping tale.