Yet this isn’t just a tale of science, but one of the growing bond between an unlikely pair of allies. Redmayne leans into the flustered posh boy shtick perfected by Hugh Grant in the ’90s to play the bookish Glaisher, who has a brilliant mind but a fumbling tongue. He speaks passionately about science and discovery, but all with an attitude that’s vaguely apologetic, as if he worries he’s being a bother. By contrast, Wren is a free spirit who not only isn’t afraid to make a scene, but much prefers it. Before their big flight, he focuses on equipment and readings, while she caters to the gathered audience by wearing a colorful costume and pancake make-up, doing acrobatics, delivering a speech, and offering a parachuting puppy as a spectacular sidekick.
Watch the trailer for The Aeronauts below:Her passion is flying and the freedom she feels among the clouds. So, the two seem poised for an opposites-attract rom-com arc, where he’ll learn to loosen up and she’ll learn to grow up and then kisses and marriage and presumably off-screen babies are to be had. But The Aeronauts never quite settles into this cliché. The main thrust of this film is the flight, in which the two grow close through sharing stories of their lives and sharing a love of the skies. Flashbacks usher us back to their meet-cute at a ball where both were misfits, then through flirtations and down the rocky road to this pivotal launch. However, romantic sparks only flicker. This is in part because Glaisher’s true love is his work, and in part because Wren is presented as a widow still heartbroken over the loss of her co-pilot/husband. Frankly, I was relieved the film didn’t end with a kiss, as there are not enough sparks to justify such a thing. Besides, not every leading man and leading lady must fall in love in 90 minutes or less. Still, the film’s indecisiveness about the nature of this relationship is equal parts distracting and confounding.
Far more interesting is the incredible risks the pair had to take when they’d flown seven miles high. When the frigid temperatures freeze the release valve, the ballon will not warm its rise. So, it’s up to Wren to scale to the top of the massive, miles-high balloon to get them back to Earth. It’s a sequence that is harrowing in concept and enthusiastically explored with Jones army-crawling like an action hero, her hands raw and bloody from cruel cold and remorseless ropes. Then a final climactic action sequence aims for heart-racing as they maneuver an unsuspecting landing. With such action, why does The Aeronauts feel so thoroughly dull?
Amazon Spotlight: November 2019
Earlier this year, director Harper earned praise for Wild Rose, a drama about a single mom who aspires to be a country singer. It was a riveting film in which every frame was alive with emotion and passion. Frankly, it confounds me that his follow-up feels so woefully lifeless. The muted color palette flattens a world on the brink of discovery. The characters are flat caricatures, one a man of science with no passion for anything but science. The other is a plucky “strong female character” defined chiefly by not being like the other girls, what with their living husbands, children, and fear of being “free.” The performances feel safe, offering little beyond earnestness and stiff-upper-lip British posturing. Admittedly, Jones has often proved underwhelming to me. Even when she’s playing a rebel, it seems she’s ever asking for permission to cut loose. But Redmayne has reached for extraordinary before, and I wonder if the pans over his diva-turn in Jupiter Ascending have scared him away from taking more risks onscreen. Whatever you might think of his portrayal of a space tyrant who speaks only in screams and whispers, you could not accuse that performance of being boring.
When it comes to the clunky chemistry and restrained performances, one might argue that Thorne and Harper were hemmed in by the responsibility of telling a true story. One would be wrong, as the central relationship of this supposed biopic is absolute fiction. There was no Amelia Wren. The aeronaut who took Glaisher on this epic flight was aeronaut Henry Coxwell. But presumably, the filmmakers thought a man might look less enchanting in ball gowns dancing opposite Redmayne, in flower-covered costumes doing cartwheels, or bravely swinging about the ropes of an out-of-control balloon to rescue the leading man. Yet the romance angle never takes flight.
So why make this change? Though reportedly based on a real balloonist named Sophie Blanchard, Wren feels paper-thin, as if crafted from a checklist of “strong female character” traits. Tragic backstory? Check. Outspoken? Check. Pretty, romantically available, and strong enough to appease female audience members but not so strong that she might turn off male audience members? Check. Check. Blech. In the end, Amelia Wren feels like a contrivance, not a character. So what was the point of her?!