Historical hot-air balloon epic The Aeronauts 'a visually stunning odyssey'

Felicity Jones and Eddie Redmayne attempt the highest hot air balloon flight in history in the period drama The Aeronauts. Damon Smith hopped aboard...

Amelia (Felicity Jones) clambers atop the bulging silk canopy to forcibly remove ice from a release valve
Damon Smith

INSPIRED by a true story, The Aeronauts takes flight with a heavy cargo of dramatic licence to chart a high-altitude expedition, which pushes two emotionally driven souls to the upper limits of human endurance.

Director Tom Harper's visually stunning odyssey is loosely tethered to Richard Holmes's 2013 book Falling Upwards: How We Took To The Air, which pays tribute to brave pioneers of the ballooning community.

Scriptwriter Jack Thorne focuses on one notable entry – the record-breaking 1862 ascent of James Glaisher and Henry Coxwell – and replaces one of the men with a fictional female adventurer, whose daredevil actions are thrillingly realised by a stunt woman on a balloon in mid-flight.

Harper repeatedly smacks our gobs with vertiginous thrills and spills including a knuckle-whitening encounter with a raging storm that spins the balloon wildly out of control.

On a technical level, the film soars and George Steel's breath-taking cinematography is particularly captivating on a giant IMAX screen.

However, characters are emotionally malnourished despite the best efforts of Felicity Jones and Eddie Redmayne to recapture their Oscar-winning on-screen chemistry from The Theory Of Everything.

James Glaisher (Redmayne) is a meteorologist in Victorian London, who believes the secret to predicting weather patterns lies 30,000 feet above the earth.

While colleagues in the scientific community pour scorn on his ideas, James is compelled to prove his theory by attempting a record-breaking hot air balloon flight captained by Amelia Wren (Jones).

She is the wife of a famous pilot, Pierre (Vincent Perez), who lost his life two years earlier during an ill-fated ascent.

Haunted by Pierre's self-sacrifice, Amelia accompanies James in a wicker basket bearing a motto from Ovid – Caelum certe patet, ibimus illi – which translates as: "surely the sky lies open, let us go that way".

Far below, James's elderly parents (Sir Tom Courtenay and Anne Reid) and his good friend John Trew (Himesh Patel) await news of the expedition.

As the balloon passes 12,000 feet, James and Amelia are dazzled by swarms of butterflies fluttering around the basket.

Soon, reduced oxygen levels and the plummeting temperature threaten theirs wellbeing.

As the altimeter records 30,000 feet, Amelia prepares to clamber atop the bulging silk canopy to forcibly remove ice from a release valve, which should allow the balloon to descend safety back to terra firma.

The Aeronauts gender-flips historical fact to provide Harper's picture with a gutsy heroine a la Sandra Bullock in Gravity, who refuses to surrender her fate to the laws of physics.

Immersive sound design heightens tension at key moments as Jones and Redmayne chew delicately on the script's meagre scraps.

They convince us to care about their airborne trailblazers while a dizzying whirl of digital effects rages around them.

Rating: 6/10

THE AERONAUTS (PG, 101 mins) Action/Drama/Romance. Felicity Jones, Eddie Redmayne, Himesh Patel, Sir Tom Courtenay, Anne Reid, Vincent Perez. Director: Tom Harper

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