What do you say about a 19th-century ballooning movie that looks great in the air but doesn’t stick the emotional landing? That’s the problem with The Aeronauts, one of those “based on a true story” undertakings that are only partly true. The film reunites Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones, who previously costarred as Stephen Hawking and his wife Jane in The Theory of Everything (both were nominated for an Oscar; only he won the trophy). Redmayne plays real-life British meteorologist James Glaisher, who thinks he can defy the skeptics and advance his research in weather by going up, up and away in a hot-air balloon. Since he knows nothing about the perils of the mission, James teams up with Amelia Wren (Jones), who has turned the process into a profitable circus act by playing up to the crowd — doing handstands before climbing into the balloon’s wicker basket and taking along her tiny dog to milk applause.
Amelia, sadly, is a figment of the imagination of screenwriter Jack Thorne, who wrote Harry Potter and the Cursed Child for the stage. And Thorne’s knack for fantasy is goosed by director Tom Harper, of TV’s Peaky Blinders and War and Peace. The actual 1862 balloon flight into the London skies saw Glaisher accompanied by the decidedly less sexy Henry Coxwell, a noted British aeronaut who risked danger, numbing cold and loss of consciousness by ascending more than 37,000 feet, a record at the time, and saving Glaisher’s life in the process.
Here, Amelia gets to do the heroics. In commercial terms, it’s a breathlessly entertaining trade-off. In terms of documented fact, however, the film takes one liberty after another. Theose interested in the real story should grab the 2013 book, Falling Upwards: How We Took to the Air, in which historian Richard Holmes detailed the flight of Glaisher and the not-ready-for-primetime Coxwell, whose considerable contributions are apparently deemed fake news when it comes to boosting the box-office.
If you can swallow the gender fudging, the movie comes through admirably as a rousing adventure. Redmayne and Jones have enormous charm and fully commit to the demands of their roles. When James and Amelia suffer the effects of hypoxia from the thinness of oxygen in the air, you sweat it out with them. Credit the filmmakers for not drumming up a bogus romance between the two, though they do exchange a few longing looks between the sharing of backstories. Flashbacks show Glaisher beating his head against the wall of scientific indifference to his theories and the worsening case of dementia afflicting his father (Tom Courtenay). And Wren, a composite of several female balloonists of the period, is a widow who still mourns the death of her husband (Vincent Perez) and must fight to be taken seriously in a man’s game.
The film is visually stunning thanks to the computer-generated effects in the air and the artistry of cinematographer George Steel and production designers David Hindle and Christian Huband. You might ask why our aeronauts are so poorly dressed for the flight, lacking gloves, hats and warm clothing to protect them from freezing temperatures. Though the details are scarcely addressed, the optics speak volumes. In a startling sequence in which Amelia climbs to the top of the balloon to unscrew a frozen valve and release air for descent, her bleeding, frostbitten hands speak to the enormity of the task at hand. Still, The Aeronauts is hobbled time and again by the attempt to add the juice of fiction to a story that could and should have stood on its own. The truth, in Hollywood terms, is never enough.