James Glaisher (Eddie Redmayne, in his best performance) is a guarded and scorned London scientist in 1862. An entire auditorium full of beards mocks him for his belief that studying the clouds will give man the ability to predict the weather. Thus, he attempts to break the record for highest ascent, to study the sky with a valise full of gauges and brass instruments.
The actual pilot of the glorious balloon is female daredevil Amelia Wren (Felicity Jones), who is returning to the skies after an inconceivable trauma. She arrives with streamers and a circus dog, turning somersaults in front of a crowd of London thrill-seekers before mounting the wicker gondola. In real life, Glaisher and his partner Henry Coxwell (written out of this script) set a record that lasted for about 60 years, when they ascended to a jet-plane altitude of freezing temperatures and hypoxia.
There are squabbles, of course. Amelia says, “Your reputation is made by paper, my reputation is made by screams.” The two have captivatingly matching frailties; Amelia losing her false daring, James jettisoning his scientific tunnel vision. Here’s a fine balance of what Les Blank called the “burden of dreams,”—fulfill them and suffer, deny them and suffer.
The film had a short run in IMAX, the format that does the fear-of-falling like nothing else, and it must have been near-unbearable. On a small screen, it’s still a stomach-wrencher. One watches through their fingers during Amelia’s spidery crawl across the frozen surface of the balloon, or the moments when those air pockets that are bad enough to take on a jumbo jet jerk the balloon upward. The skies are digitally painted with great skill, the cloudscapes startlingly rich (apparently director/co-producer Tom Harper sent up a balloon to get some footage).
The flashbacks that get us out of the basket have a sharp edge. A hale Tom Courtenay is very good as James’ father, a watchmaker falling victim to senility; Amelia’s sister (Phoebe Fox) never lays her own familial warnings too thick. When the script goes bad, it’s good-bad in a classic old-movie way. The Aeronauts does what movies used to do; telling us fictions to remind us to be brave and persistent.