They rode an inspiring take on a true story all the way to the Oscars with 2014's The Theory of Everything, and now Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones are back together again -- seven miles above the Earth's surface in a hot air balloon. The Aeronauts follows an intrepid 1862 expedition to explore the potential of meteorology in an effort to “rewrite the rules of the air”, led by a scientist and the brave, defiant balloonist he travels with. It's a vertiginous triumph of fingernail-chewing blockbuster scale, which tells a story of soaring warmth.
That scientist is James Glaisher (Redmayne), who gets the requisite early scene of the scientific community chuckling away through their ultra-posh moustaches at his wackadoodle suggestion that weather prediction might one day be possible. Determined to prove his theory, he connects with widow Amelia Rennes (Jones) and proposes an epic journey into the skies, attempting to break the height record in pursuit of data nobody else has been able to record. Prolific stage and screen writer Jack Thorne uses the balloon mission as the spine for his story, which illuminates the world of the characters via frequent flashbacks. There's a slightly staid and stuffy feel to these interstitial scenes, as if director Tom Harper is desperate to get back in the air.
And when The Aeronauts is up in the skies, it's nothing short of terrific. With cinematographer George Steel bathing the scenes in a stark, quasi-heavenly glow, there's a feel of two people locked inside a completely isolated world – one in which beauty is everywhere, but danger is never far away. From an early sequence in which Amelia appears to toss a dog over the side of the basket to a set piece in which she scales the outside of the balloon, tens of thousands of feet above terra firma, Harper pulls out all the stops. Having torn my emotions to shreads with the soulful joy of Wild Rose earlier this year, Harper has come for the audience's nerves this time around, jangling them mercilessly for two hours.
The aerial scenes are an amalgam of Alfonso Cuaron's tension-packed space drifting in Gravity and the horrendously tense tightrope sequences from Robert Zemeckis' The Walk. Much of these sequences are shot in tight, claustrophobic close-up, which only enhances the jaw-dropping beauty of the wider landscapes. There's an urgency and a danger to the scenes in the clouds, conveying the rapid shift between awe-inspiring tranquility and stormy chaos.
With so much focus on the two performers in these sequences, it helps that the chemistry between Redmayne and Jones is so well-honed. Their relationship is prickly but warm, while also remaining entirely and refreshingly platonic. The notion of a period role is not a stretch of a role for either performer, but they imbue their characters with real heart and energy. Jones is an unstoppable daredevil, concealing the trauma of her past with bravado and showmanship, while Redmayne ultimately proves to be so devoted to his science that he becomes a dangerous, reckless figure rather than the stuffy, bookish man he appears as in the first act.
Perhaps inevitably given the focus on the skies, the supporting cast of The Aeronauts is rather under-served. Himesh Patel, just months after his standout turn in Yesterday, gets absolutely nothing to do as Glaisher's best mate but look up at the clouds with a smile on his face, while talented comedy performer Rebecca Front is equally wasted. It's only Brit legend Tom Courtenay who really makes an impact, delivering a sensitive, moving portrait of Glaisher's father, suffering from dementia.
At times, it feels like there are two films at play in The Aeronauts. On the ground is a warmly lit but ultimately rather dull period tale but, in the sky, there's a terrific story playing out of the human desire to explore and enrich. The film takes considerable liberties with the real events and some of those inventions fall flat – one in particular feels like a hokey, melodramatic piece of backstory – while others feel like inspired choices. Jones' character, particularly, is a composite of other figures and, as a result, serves as an avatar for the dozens of incredible women who have been ignored throughout the history of science.
This is a movie that revels in its ability to take the audience off guard, delivering admirable spectacle as well as real humanity, despite its period biopic trappings. It's an emotionally rich experience that provides moments of heart-stopping tension amid its spotlight for a relationship between two actors who have an undeniable spark.