Tom Harper’s biographical adventure film The Aeronauts puts fiction before fact from the moment the words ‘inspired by true events’ flash onto the screen. It is not a film that worries itself over issues of historical accuracy, but rather uses history as a key to unlock a wonderful world of imagination and inspiration.
The film follows real-life meteorologist James Glaisher (Eddie Redmayne) as he teams up with pilot Amelia Rennes (Felicity Jones) to take to the skies in a gas balloon. Their journey is based on a real balloon flight that James Glaisher and aeronaut Henry Coxwell took in 1862 where they broke the world record for flight altitude.
James believes that the weather can be predicted – much to the amusement of his bewildered colleagues – and sees his voyage with Amelia as a means of scientific discovery. As a scientist, he is a stickler for evidence and statistics, and he turns his nose up at anything he cannot quantify. For Amelia, who is a fictional amalgamation of two real female aeronauts, ballooning is a passion with which she has a deep, personal connection. A stark contrast to James, she is a whimsical entertainer who sees the beauty in everything and puts feelings before facts. Unsurprisingly, their two distinct personalities clash once they set out on their voyage. They soon learn, however, that they must learn from each other and work together in order to stay alive on their treacherous journey.
This is Jones and Redmayne’s first onscreen appearance together since co-leading The Theory of Everything in 2015, and their chemistry is stronger than ever. The basket of the gas balloon is an enclosed, intimate space that James and Amelia can’t escape from, so there’s nothing that they can keep secret from each other. Their relationship develops quickly but naturally, and the way their dynamic changes is captivating to watch.
The two characters have an equal amount of screen time, but it’s Amelia who’s primarily in the spotlight. She encourages James to look beyond his books and calculations to what exists around him. In keeping with Amelia’s approach to life, the factual elements of the story are only important insofar as they act as a springboard for Harper to explore what could have been. What if these two aeronauts rose so high that their balloon began to freeze? What if they had to battle an unexpected storm? The film’s greatest strength is its ability to visualise these scenarios onscreen in such a creative way that historical accuracy is rendered unimportant.
Some of the film’s creativity comes from the cinematography which, as well as producing some visually stunning wide shots of the flight, cleverly evokes the increasingly suffocating air and space with close-ups and blurred frames. Steven Price’s score also adds to the tense atmosphere, but not excessively. In fact, several moments are made even more tense by not featuring music, because it adds a sense of realism and unpredictability. At other moments, the score is as stirring as the visuals it accompanies, and together the two elements create an awe-inspiring cinematic experience.
The Aeronauts takes the biographical genre to new heights by championing imagination and wonder not just in its storytelling, but in the story itself. It transforms reality into something poetic and magical that demands to be seen on the biggest screen possible.
The Aeronauts screened at LFF on October 7th, 8th and 10th
by Holly Weaver
Holly Weaver is currently studying French and Spanish at the University of Leeds, and has spent her year abroad studying film in Montréal. She is enraptured by pre-1960s cinema and some of her favourite films include Singin’ in the Rain, City Lights and The Crime of Monsieur Lange. You can find her tweeting and letterboxd’ing at @drivermiller.