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Review: The Aeronauts – “An awe-inspiring aerial odyssey”

If you’re British, chances are you spend a solid 70% of your day talking (nae, complaining) about the weather. Planning what to wear, where to go, what time to go, and pretty much everything else in-between is dictated to us by the mysterious skies which hang above; like some kind of beautiful, unattainable overlord. It is the ultimate curiosity, and for James Glaisher, its magnetic pull was simply too forceful to deny.

Hot on the heels of his celebrated Glaswegian country music drama, Wild Rose, young writer-director Tom Harper transports Glaisher’s sky-high pursuit of meteorological discovery from page to screen in The Aeronauts. This thrilling traditionalist adventure is unholstered by eye-widening modern technology; rich with nerve-shredding set pieces, and an unmistakable aura of wonder. It has a delightful rusticity – evoking the rich heritage of classic British filmmaking – yet artfully earns its stripes as a multiplex blockbuster simultaneously. What should be a tricky, and potentially awkward, balancing act is straddled with a deft lightness and sense of commanding control; piloting the towering hot air balloon at the heart of its tale with unprecedented accuracy.

Glaisher (Eddie Redmayne) is a scientist with his head firmly in the clouds. His hypotheses about “weather prediction” are met with ruffled disdain from the legions of moustache-laden scholars who claim to be men of science, not speculation. Unable to secure funding or support for his research, he enlists the aid of Amelia Wren (Felicity Jones); a plucky, carnivalesque balloon pilot whose go-getter, showman façade disguises a deep and devastating trauma. Together the unlikely double act take off, with the goal to surpass the French’s record for the highest recorded flight and to change the way we perceive the forecast forever.

At a breezy 100 minutes, The Aeronauts sails along with panache and precision. Not a single frame is wasted here; thrusting the spectator into the balloon and heading skywards from the off. We revisit key moments in our protagonists’ history in well-orchestrated flashback sequences, ensuring our attention is never drawn away from the mission unless absolutely necessary. The exquisite Jack Thorne (The Accident, His Dark Materials) serves as co-writer here, and his influence couldn’t be more prevalent. Thorne’s ability to draw out shielded emotions and motivations in his characters has made him a household name in British drama, and here he exercises those creative muscles with true majesty.

Despite this being, for the most part, a rollicking yarn, there is a rooted sadness and pain in both Glaisher and Wren, which Thorne pulls out with tenderness and subtlety. Delicately penned sequences see the pair connect ever closer in their spirited voyage, but often treading separate emotional paths. For Glaisher, it’s acceptance; never has his work been taken seriously, and perhaps now his peers will understand why his contributions to science are entirely relevant. For Wren, it’s a sense of closure; bowing out from her life’s great oeuvre with a thunderous, completive performance. Her past rings heavy in the head and the heart, but this balloon ride, this voyage, offers a purposefulness to all the remorse.

Throughout the film, brilliantly executed screen cues inform us the height of the balloon’s ascent, the temperature (which continues to plummet as we climb), and the duration of the flight. This gives The Aeronauts a distinct urgency which this author did not expect. When time is brought into the fold, it gives the drama and action a richer thematic impact. Every single decision made inside that wicker basket will affect the outcome of the expedition, and indeed their lives. At a pivotal point in the story, Glaisher desires to travel higher than high; a choice which, should the pair agree to fulfil, will see a dramatic decline in conditions as the gauges free-fall below freezing.

The real-time effect also lends sumptuously to the set pieces, which are equal parts vertigo-inducing and adrenaline-fuelled. If you have a fear of heights, a handful of shots composed here will have you reaching for the popcorn bucket. George Steel’s expansive cinematography is working at full steam during the film’s sizeable sequences of terror; in which our heroes are thrown out of the balloon, flung upside down, and left clinging to tattered, tearing ropes with every fibre of their being. The camera whips and flings; spiralling out of control amidst all the cloud chaos. In short, if you can see The Aeronauts in IMAX, one wholeheartedly encourages you do so.

Reuniting after their Academy Award-lauded pairing in The Theory of Everything, viewers will be pleased to hear both Redmayne and Jones’ fizzy chemistry remains. These two actors feed off one another with such naturalism, and their companionship really shines in some of the film’s more intimate, quieter sequences. Redmayne’s tight-lipped, stiff-stood presence is the desired chalk to Jones’ flamboyant, cartwheeling cheese. Both Glaisher and Wren are engaging characters to take flight with, and watching their growth across this journey is most enjoyable. For this writer, seeing Wren snap from performer to pilot in a nanosecond was a welcomed trait – it demonstrates that appearances really are deceiving, and despite her provocative antics, this is her balloon and her flight – she is in full control.

In a similar model to The Irishman, Harper’s latest has been produced by a streaming service, therefore making its primary destination upon your home screen. An Original title for Amazon Prime, many will consume the movie from the comfort of their sofas, but one urges everyone to take the time to see this upon the biggest screen you can locate. It is a lavishly observed, meticulously crafted work which is wholly worthy of silver screen showcase. Like any film, it has some flaws, but failure to immerse yourself in its expansive environment will be to both your, and unfairly, the picture’s detriment.

The Aeronauts is an awe-inspiring aerial odyssey which continues Harper’s vibrant run as an exciting new voice in modern British cinema. It is a wildly entertaining, and dextrously crafted film, brimming with jaw-dropping visuals. Drop your sandbags, grab your brolly, and brace yourself for a whirlwind.

The Aeronauts is out now nationwide in IMAX & 4DX, courtesy of eOne UK. It arrives on Amazon Prime in 2020.

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