Since The Theory of Everything, Eddie Redmayne – who won an Oscar for his portrayal of Stephen Hawking – and Felicity Jones – who was nominated as Jane Hawking – have sort of settled into a groove with their performances. Jones has taken on more quiet, reserved roles, such as the stoic leader of the most understated Star Wars film, Rogue One, or portraying Ruth Bader Ginsburg in last year’s On the Basis of Sex. On the other side, Redmayne has fallen into even more bombastic, tic-heavy roles, like Newt Scamander in the Fantastic Beasts films, and of course the incredibly named Balem Abrasax from Jupiter Ascending.
In The Aeronauts, Jones and Redmayne reunite and almost immediately, the roles are reversed. Set in 1862, Redmayne plays James Glaisher, a British meteorologist who, much to the chagrin of his elders, believes weather patterns can be predicted. Felicity Jones is the fictional Amelia Wren, a hot-air balloon pilot who likes to give her audience some flash and excitement before she sets off on her high-flying adventures. Together, Glaisher and Wren take off in a balloon with the goal of flying higher than anyone has ever traveled. While The Aeronauts is billed as a story of two pilots breaking records and defying odds, the strength of The Aeronauts comes from watching both Jones and Redmayne play the exact opposite type of character that they’re used to playing.
Redmayne is wonderfully restrained and it’s great seeing him not rely on weird attention-grabbing mannerisms. By calming down and just not being such an oddity, Redmayne gives one of his best performances. The same can be said of Jones, who does equally well as the flamboyant, show-stopping Wren, in a role that breaths plenty of life in what could’ve been a basic biopic.
Unfortunately, The Aeronauts does often sway too much into standard biopic mode. Written by Jack Thorne, The Aeronauts takes place almost entirely inside the hot-air balloon as Wren and Galisher fly higher and higher. Putting these two in close proximity, with their aspirations of pushing themselves as far as they can go and vying for professional acceptance, is where The Aeronauts is at its best. But slowing this momentum down are frequent flashbacks to the buildup to this pair going up in this balloon together, which present details that could have easily been disseminated through dialogue.
The Aeronauts, as directed by Tom Harper, has an almost muted Tim Burton look to it, and it’s hard not to think of this year’s Dumbo remake, especially as their balloon takes off in a makeshift carnival environment. By putting these two in the sky for most of the film, much of the film is reliant on the believability of the special effects up in the air. For example, when the balloon flies through a thunderstorm, the artificiality of the effects undercuts the stakes of the groundbreaking aeronautic achievements occurring. Yet when their environment is stable, such as when Wren must climb to the top of the balloon, the pressure and excitement of the moment excels.
Had Harper told this film entirely from the vantage of the balloon, this could’ve been a truly exceptional biopic. But the higher The Aeronauts goes and allows the audience to spend time with two solid performances by Redmayne and Jones, The Aeronauts soars.