Somewhere, there’s a version of The Aeronauts that is really great. All the ingredients of a rollicking good time at the pictures are here, but Tom Harper’s film puts them together in such a cack-handed way that most of the potential is lost. Excellent visuals and some fun, sweaty-palmed set-pieces raise hopes, but they are promptly and consistently dashed by a horribly weak screenplay and editing choices that smother any sense of fun in favour of heavy-handed boredom. Hardly the triumphant reunion of Theory of Everything stars Felicity Jones and Eddie Redmayne that it should be, The Aeronauts fails its actors with lazy, first-draft writing.
Redmayne plays real life scientist James Glaisher – though the film takes considerable departures from actual history – who, in 1862, flew up tens of thousands of feet in a hot air balloon in order to make studies of the weather. Jones plays his (fictional) pilot Amelia Rennes (like Wren, get it?), a capable and brave flyer with a sense for the theatrical. For some mystifying reason, Harper and screenwriter Jack Thorne choose to tell this story non-linearly, starting with the balloon’s initial ascent and then interrupting the action with a series of dull flashbacks.
Though not written with much grace, we get to know everything we need to about the characters and their pasts in the early stages of the balloon ride, so every trip in to the past merely reiterates information we already know in a less exciting setting. Even worse is when The Aeronauts tries to wring drama out of funding issues and a crisis of confidence for Amelia that threatens the feasibility of the expedition. It’s impossible to care about any of that when the previous scene takes place 20,000 feet up in the air. When the lead duo are flying in the vast skies, it’s gorgeous and occasionally thrilling, but the expository intrusions ruin one of the most interesting aspects of the flight, which is that it happens in real time.
Throughout, dialogue is perfunctory at best, full of cringe-inducing one-liners and leaden exposition that never shows when it can tell. Supporting characters refer to themselves as ‘your sister’ or ‘your friend’ constantly and have a habit of telling the leads their own life stories. It never feels natural, and makes all the talking scenes aggravating. The one sequence that breaks this pattern is James’s chat with his dementia-burdened dad, and this is all down to a fantastic small performance from Tom Courtenay.
Jones brings a compelling strength and tenacity to Amelia, but Redmayne is lost beneath the sea of bad writing. The chemistry between the two that so elevated Theory of Everything is still there in part, but it’s a lot harder to make it out. It’s strange to see a film so unaware of its own strengths, and makes the waste of potential that much more frustrating.