The Aeronauts (Tom Harper, 2019) 2 out of 4 stars.
Filled with wonderful flights of stunning computer-generated imagery, The Aeronauts periodically soars but all too often crash-lands under the weight of its unwieldly structure. “Inspired by true events,” as its opening title card declares, the film takes its facts, such as they are, at least partially from Richard Holmes’ 2013 written history of ballooning, Falling Upwards, choosing one of its subjects, the real-life meteorologist James Glaisher (1809-1903), as its primary male protagonist. In addition, director/co-writer Tom Harper (Wild Rose) and writer Jack Thorne (Wonder) conceive of a fictional female partner for Glaisher, creating a rousing feminist tale that is, sadly, nothing more than a wishful fable, since it never happened. Women were involved in the pioneering balloon flights, but not as we see here (those were different times). Perhaps if the surrounding clunkiness were not so bothersome, this invention would annoy less. Instead, it’s just one more reason to wish the film were better.
Felicity Jones (On the Basis of Sex) plays Amelia Wren (what a name, a composite of pioneering airline pilot Amelia Earhart and the lovely songbird!), with Eddie Redmayne (The Danish Girl) as Glaisher. They make a lively duo, and since the film rests largely on their capable shoulders, at least they deliver some watchable goods. The real stars of the show, however, are the effects. Glaisher’s mission – he’s the scientist, she the experienced balloonist – is to fly higher than any man (or woman) has flown before, breaking the previous record of 23,000 feet. As the great balloon rises over mid-19thcentury London, the views are breathtaking. That’s nothing compared to the adrenaline-fueled scenes to come once the vessel and its occupants enter a storm cloud. Rocketed to and fro, up and down, they barely survive, acts of derring-do notwithstanding. Every scene in the air is brilliantly rendered (though this is not a film for people with vertigo). Unfortunately, that is only half the movie.
The other half is filled with flashbacks to how they got there. She’s a widow, her dead husband a great “aeronaut,” himself, who plunged to his death under circumstances explained as the film progresses (confusingly, his name was Rennes, pronounced the same as hers but spelled differently). That’s her trauma to overcome. Glaisher is an aspiring scientist whose dream of being able to predict the weather earns him nothing but scorn on the ground. We cut back and forth from the present of the flight to the past of the buildup to it, the one exciting, the other a slog (with the talented Himesh Patel, from Yesterday, wasted in a role as Glaisher’s best mate), the very definition of uneven storytelling. Perhaps it’s fitting that a movie entitled “The Aeronauts” should only work when airborne, but we the audience don’t have the option of only watching the good part. Save it for home viewing, then, when you’ll be able to pick and choose.