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Aeronauts, The
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by Jay Seaver

"A cozy but fun big-screen adventure."
4 stars

"The Aeronauts" is not going to be quite so impressive when you see it on a small screen (which most will, given Amazon will have it streaming two weeks after its North American theatrical release), and there are bits that don't totally fit together, but this is such a treat visually that I'll cut out some slack. On top of that, it's the exact sort of thing I'm always looking to find for my nieces, full of discovery and adventure but not violence.

It's framed by an ascent in a hot-air balloon in 1862, which will incidentally attempt to break the altitude record of the time - which is how it has been sold to the assembled crowd - but whose true purpose is for scientist James Glaisher (Eddie Redmayne) to record air pressure, temperature, and the like at various altitudes. The pilot is Amelia Rennes (Felicity Jones), and they both consider the path that led them there as they fly to the clouds: For him, it's fighting the scientific establishment's belief that Glaisher's dreams of predicting the weather is folly; for her, it involves the memory of her aeronaut husband Pierre (Vincent Perez) plunging to earth while she was in the basket during their last ascent.

Neither of those flashback threads is terribly interesting, even if we hadn't already seen that they were in the balloon five minutes into the movie, and they seem to be interspersed throughout from sheer structural necessity, because otherwise the audience would just be the flight in real time, and an hour of meticulous note-taking will probably not be to all tastes. I'd be curious to see if there's a more chronological cut of the film that does a better job of using all of these things to build to the final flight, or missing scenes that make the lead-up less choppy, because there is a fair amount that seems to be missing, from how they got financing to how there's just one scene in the massive hangar where they build the balloon to the fact that there's a missing space between Amelia saying she can't go up in a balloon again to her embracing the showmanship of her first scene.

There are some delightful bits in those flashbacks, though, from that hangar to Glaisher's visit to his father, a sundowning watchmaker whose love of astronomy is so great that he has built an observatory with a retractable roof in the apartment above his shop. Director Tom Harper and his crew embrace the desire to put on a show that the Amelia shows in the first act, with her delightfully gaudy dress, the purpose-built grandstands with wooden carnival rides in the background, and the gorgeous, colorful shots of the balloon itself ready for launch. It's a more colorful 19h-Century London than has been fashionable of late, maybe a bit of a fantasy, but a welcome one.

The other end of the movie is eye-popping as well. Harper and company have made good use of their time in the balloon throughout the movie, showing wonders and doing a fair job of making Glaisher's work interesting to those who take weather prediction for granted 150 years later. It looks good enough that, watching it on a giant screen in 70mm, you can easily forget that most of it was probably shot in a room with green walls. The last act, though, is terrific, a hair-raising gambit to reach the ground again after they've ascended so far into the air that vital equipment is frozen, the sort of thing that makes one's jaw drop with how insane it is despite there being no other choice. Harper and co-writer Jack Thorne do a nifty job of throwing Emilia and James into an unfamiliar situation and then making it even more surreally dangerous on top of that.

Felicity Jones sells the heck out of that, grunting and straining and selling the right mix of in-the-moment bravery and disbelief to bring the audience along. She really carries the performance end of the entire movie from the very start, leaping into making Amelia brash to cover her fear without holding back then and letting Amelia's grief and love of adventure collide in the flashbacks, where Phoebe Fox makes a fine foil as the well-meaning sister who doesn't quite understand her. Eddie Redmayne doesn't shine nearly so brightly as the focused, socially-maladroit scientist - he's got a tendency to seize on one thing in a character and here it's seriousness, which seems rather one-note next to Jones. There's nevertheless a lot of genuine charm to how the two balloonists become fast friends over an hour in the air, kindred spirits who understand each other more fully than the others they are genuinely close to.

In some ways, "The Aeronauts" is a movie uniquely unsuited to the time in which it is released, a spectacle designed for the big screen and collectively held breaths in a time when it is lucky to be there for a week before it starts getting pushed to one tablet at a time. It's got issues, but it's also the sort of throwback we could do with seeing more often.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=32945&reviewer=371
originally posted: 12/08/19 12:33:20
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USA
  06-Dec-2019 (PG-13)

UK
  04-Nov-2019 (PG)

Australia
  06-Dec-2019 (PG)


Directed by
  Tom Harper

Written by
  Jack Thorne

Cast
  Felicity Jones
  Eddie Redmayne
  Himesh Patel
  Phoebe Fox
  Tim McInnerny
  Anne Reid



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