On first look, The Aeronauts seems quite tedious. It’s the story of two Victorian scientists on a mission to go higher than anyone has ever floated in a hot air balloon. On the scale of thrilling spectacle, that sounds right up there with ‘person who has driven fastest on a tractor’ or ‘dived deepest with a snorkel’. Who cares, you know? If it were not for the re-teaming of Felicity Jones and Eddie Redmayne for the first time since The Theory of Everything, for which Redmayne won an Oscar, probably nobody would care.
Yet there’s a lot to care about. From an unpromising place, The Aeronauts becomes a snipey, quite funny buddy comedy and, occasionally, knuckle-clenching action thriller.
Where Redmayne got the really showy part in The Theory of Everything, Jones gets most of the interesting stuff here. Redmayne is James Glaisher, a dry, old stick of a scientist who says things about pressure and wind currents that nobody really understands. Jones is his show-off pilot, Amelia Wren, who considers their mission entertainment as much as science. When a crowd gathers to watch them take off, she plays to them, doing tricks while hanging over the side of the balloon and flinging her dog down to the shocked people below.
As they float to who knows where, there are flashbacks to how both came to be in the balloon, through a mixture of tragedy and determination to prove doubters wrong. All that part is fine, but quite standard period drama-rebel-stuff – Glaisher is a nerd everyone underestimates; Wren is a woman who nobody even bothers to estimate. The good bits come when the two are stuck in the balloon.
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Redmayne and Jones have crackling chemistry, which works even better when they’re crushed together in a basket. They thwack their lines off each other, as mutual frustration gives way to deep trust. Director Tom Harper (Wild Rose) makes impressive use of his very small stage. Despite having only a little basket and a balloon to play with, he keeps it visually interesting and conjures some really exciting action sequences. Most notable of these is a lightning storm escape and a disaster that requires Wren to climb the outside of the balloon. The latter will leave some nail marks in the cinema seat.
From very unpromising beginnings, The Aeronauts lifts and lifts to become something highly entertaining and surprisingly exciting.