THE AERONAUTS – Review by Diane Carson

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The Aeronauts thrillingly flies into thin air

Some breathtaking events seem absolutely perfect for film, and that is certainly true for The Aeronauts. Set in 1862 England, the suspenseful, thrilling story goes with James Glaisher and Emilia Wren, adventurers determined to advance science and meteorology while also setting a new altitude record for a gas balloon, above 36,000 feet, with no auxiliary, pressurized breathing apparatus.

This astonishing achievement, credited to the real James Glaisher and Henry Coxwell, includes enthralling and terrifying moments. Adding drama, here it’s a spunky Emilia (Felicity Jones) and a more cautious but equally committed James (Eddie Redmayne) who must cooperate to survive, despite their conflicting personalities. She’s a showboat entertainer; he values a studied seriousness. Therefore, both must muster the most profound psychological stamina and physical courage.

Based on Richard Holmes book Falling Up, director Tom Harper and screenwriter Jack Thorne combined details of several true stories for their fictionalized one. Honoring the history of early ballooning, they salute real-life details: swarms of butterflies thousands of feet up, mind-boggling parachute descents, horrible deaths from falling, freezing, or just passing out at altitudes airplanes now ascend to. Emilia is based on the first woman pilot aeronaut, famous French balloonist Sophie Blanchard, who would throw fireworks out of the balloon, which didn’t end well for her.

Certainly exhilarating, and also challenging to watch for anyone with acrophobia, the eleven-week production relied on five real flights in an historically accurate, nineteenth century balloon photographed from drones and helicopters instead of computer animated footage.

At this year’s Telluride Film Festival, director Tom Harper described the stunt work done by stars Felicity Jones and Eddie Redmayne, both describing their occasional terror when they nearly crashed, smashing into trees after throwing all their sand bags out. The upshot of this reliance on several authentic flights is an impressive, heart-stopping immersion in the experience. It feels real because much of it is. The Aeronauts flies into thin air and took my breath away.

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Diane Carson

Diane Carson

Diane Carson, Ph.D., Professor Emerita, has reviewed films for over 25 years and has covered the Cannes, Telluride, Toronto, Palm Springs, and Sundance festivals. She writes for KDHX, 88.1 FM. St. Louis’ community radio. One of the founders of the St. Louis International Film Festival, she continues to serve on juries. A past president of the University Film and Video Association, she taught film studies and production at St. Louis Community College and at Webster University. Her new book, written with two colleagues, is “Appetites and Anxieties: Food, Film, and the Politics of Representation,” Wayne State U. Press, 2014.