Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones played Stephen and Jane Hawking in the 2014 drama, “The Theory of Everything”. Both were rewarded with multiple award season nominations and honors. The duo is back together in “The Aeronauts”, hoping to reach similar cinematic heights.
“Based on a true story” dramas always tamper with the facts in some way. The most successful don’t mess with reality too much. But “The Aeronauts” pairs Redmayne’s real-life 19th-century scientist/meteorologist James Glaisher with Jones’s fictional character, Amelia Rennes. She’s a gas balloon pilot and daredevil performer (a.k.a. – an aeronaut).
In 1862, Glaisher and pilot Henry Coxwell ascended 37,000 feet in a balloon — higher than any humans had gone before. The female composite character of Rennes replaces Coxwell in this version of the story. Considering “The Aeronauts” is basically a two-character movie, that’s a pretty big deal.
Jones definitely delivers another solid performance. But it’s unclear why director Tom Harper (who also directed this year’s glowing “Wild Rose”) and screenwriter Jack Thorne chose to tamper with such a core element of history. Would a film about two men — the actual two men who performed this incredible feat — have been less interesting?
It’s also puzzling why Amazon Studios is placing Jones up for Lead Actress consideration this awards season, but have Redmayne in the Supporting Actor category. Yes, there’s a slight edge given to Jones in terms of screen time. But they are the yin and yang of “The Aeronauts”. Ironically, there is a scene when Rennes and Glaisher are dancing in which she tells him, “I’m leading. You’re not.”
The film relies heavily on visuals – both real and CG. Once the pair reaches significant altitude, we get a number of majestic wide shots. Apparently the actors did a great deal of work above ground, captured by helicopter. Harper hovers on Redmayne and Jones as they interact inside the basket. The medium shots are quite convincing. Close-ups of the (human) stars expose backgrounds that are less authentic.
“The Aeronauts” is similar, in a lot of ways, to 2013’s “Gravity”. Both films center on a scientist and a veteran pilot who experience danger in space. “Gravity” director Alfonso Cuaron was able to pull-off a more realistic look. “The Aeronauts” was originally intended to be released out of the gate in IMAX. Amazon cancelled that plan, opting instead for a two-week limited theatrical run on standard screens before moving it to Prime Video. The occasional tiny text on-screen graphics will be challenging to decipher on any device.
The real-time nature of the story works. So do the handful of appropriate flashbacks. And there’s a familiarity to the confident Redmayne and Jones that comes through vividly. But in terms of treatment and impact compared to many other awards hopefuls released over the past few months, “The Aeronauts” is a bit of a lightweight.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, “The Aeronauts” gets a C+.
“The Aeronauts” opens in select theaters on December 6th and streams on Amazon Prime Video on December 20th. Running Time: 100 min.