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Non-Review Review: The Aeronauts

At one point in The Aeronauts, reluctant partners Amelia Wren and James Glaisher open up to one another. High above the clouds, separated from the world below, Wren talks a little bit about her own departed husband and how she has struggled to come to terms with his absence. It isn’t a particularly in-depth conversation, coming about thirty minutes into a hundred-minute movie, so she stops rather abruptly. She is grateful for the tact and restraint of her conversational partner, the socially-awkward Glaisher. “Thank you,” she tells him. “Another would have pushed me further.”

This is more than just a small and inevitable moment of character development awkwardly signposted, a gesture that Wren and Glaisher are not as incompatible and oppositional as even they have come to believe. It is also a statement of purpose for Tom Harper’s The Aeronauts. It is a promise to the audience that The Aeronauts will never push its viewers or its characters in particularly uncomfortable or unconventional directions. Instead, it will offer a much gentler type of story that moves at its own pace and deals with various obstacles and developments well within its comfort zone.

On top of the world…

The Aeronauts is a clean, old-fashioned awards season drama. Two talented young actors are locked together in a confined space, playing characters who see the world in what initially appear to be two very different ways that gradually align over the course of the movie’s runtime. The costumes are spectacular. The music is triumphant. The special effects are impressive. There is tragedy, but it is overcome. There are complications, but they are handled. The Aeronauts is surprisingly conventional for a film that can be described as “the Victorian hot air balloon adventure starring Felicity Jones and Eddie Redmayne.

This isn’t a criticism. At least, not a particularly biting one. The Aeronauts understands it is pitching itself as broad crowd-pleasing entertainment, so never pushes too hard in any direction that might possibly jeopardise that. Anything that might possible put that at risk is hastily thrown overboard. This is at once the best and worst thing about The Aeronauts. “Your husband pushed too far,” Glaisher warns Wren at one point, both an example of the film’s complete aversion to subtext and an in-text justification for its careful moderation. The Aeronauts is aiming at “charming.” It lands squarely on target.

A triumph of scale.

To be entirely clear, there is nothing wrong with this approach to awards season drama. There is something to be said for this sort of old-fashioned cinema, telling well-produced stories anchored in good performances that are accessible and audience friendly. Not every awards season contender needs to bristle like Parasite or Bombshell. There must be room for gentleness in the end of year gold rush, for films with charming and delightful scenes wherein the two leads discover swarms of beautiful butterflies soaring gracefully above the clouds of London.

Indeed, The Aeronauts seeks to justify itself almost immediately out of the gate. The film’s opening scenes are set against the launch of the balloon, as Glaisher is making his final preparations while Wren courts the crowds who have turned out to watch their departure. Glaisher balks at Wren’s crass showmanship, seeing it as crass and denigrating to the serious work that he is doing. Wren has no such pretensions. “Your reputation is built on paper, mine is built on screams,” she advises Glaisher as the crowd cheers. “These people paid to be entertained.”

Full of hot air.

In an era where even Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola find themselves caught up in debates about Marvel Studios films, it makes sense that these sorts of films would become as much about justifying their existence as they are about the stories they are telling. As with Ford vs. Ferrari, there is a small element of “art-vs.-business” playing out within the light and fluffy trappings of The Aeronauts. The film understands that it largely exists as crowd-pleasing spectacle, and refuses to be shamed for that, Wren arguing for the film’s broad approach over Glaisher’s stony-faced earnestness.

That said, given how strongly The Aeronauts identifies with Wren, it is ironic that the film hits all of its marks with the same meticulous care that Glaisher brings to his work. A lot of the storytelling in The Aeronauts feels very precisely calibrated and calculated, designed to deliver what the audience expects from this sort of film. In order to explain his aerial ambitions, Glaisher is given a Freudian back story about fulfilling his father’s dreams by proxy. It doesn’t matter that Glaisher’s father only appears in two scenes, and that his relationship with his son is underdeveloped. What matters is that this beat is hit.

A Glaishial Freeze.

The Aeronauts is keen to avoid anything resembling discomfort or tension. Despite the fact that the film’s framing device features Wren flying in the balloon with Glaisher, a not-insignificant amount of the film’s flashbacks are given over to Wren’s efforts to back out of the flight. Of course, a film called “The Aeronauts” was never going to end with Wren refusing to fly, but the framing device offers a particularly comforting assurance to those audience members who might be seriously worried at the possibility. It assures viewers that Wren will overcome her doubts and uncertainties, no matter how bleak it appears.

To be fair, there is a lot to enjoy here. The visuals are striking. The film’s relative gentleness is endearing, particularly in an era of anxiety, where even awards fare like Joker and The Irishman are exercises in inescapable dread and mounting inevitability. More than that, although Eddie Redmayne gets top-billing as the cast’s Oscar-winner, The Aeronauts decides almost immediately that it belongs to Felicity Jones. Glaisher’s arc is given a reasonable amount of storytelling real estate, but his path is essentially a straight line; Glaisher wants to fly in a balloon, and Glaisher ends up flying in a balloon.

The perfect hangout movie?

In contrast, it is Wren who carries the film’s emotional arc, who drives the action, who holds the moral weight. Jones is really impressive here, and The Aeronauts trusts her entirely. Jones played the familiar awards-season role of dutiful wife to Redmayne’s troubled maverick in The Theory of Everything, and so it is genuinely heartwarming that Redmayne proves himself to be as gracious and generous a co-star to her as she had been to him. The Aeronauts works best when it is willing to just let Jones carry scenes, whether with silent vulnerability in flashback or gritted-teeth determination in the framing sequence.

Of course, The Aeronauts is a little too heavy-ended in places. Then again, this is very much in keeping with the kind of film that The Aeronauts wants to be. It is not a film that operates in an especially subtle register. At one point, a supporting character actually utters the assertion that “women don’t belong in balloons!” as if the focus on Wren isn’t enough of itself to speak to the film’s feminist bona fides. It is almost a parody of the sort of weird earnestness that informs so many of these sorts of films, were it isn’t enough to make a point through characterisation. These points must be telegraphed.

Jonesing for some adventure.

Indeed, The Aeronauts never hits a thematic beat that it can’t clumsily articulate one the bluntest manner possible. “You can’t just run away from your problems,” Wren’s sister warns her. “You have to face them. Here on Earth.” Just in case you didn’t get the none-too-subtle metaphor at the heart of this story about a grieving widow who absconds with a stranger in a hot air balloon. Similarly, in case the audience has missed the life lesson which Wren has imparted upon the bookish Glaisher, she helpfully states it, “You don’t understand the world by looking at it, but by living in it.

Still, there is a lot of charm in The Aeronauts, which knows exactly how far to push itself before turning around and heading home.

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