The Aeronauts: vertiginous set pieces more than make up for flaccid drama

Image courtesy of Empire online

Is it reasonable to say that a film isn’t very good if it's one of the most terrifying you've ever seen?

It's hard to evaluate a generally mediocre film that gets one key aspect really right, especially when, if we're being honest, it's not an especially hard thing to get right.

The Aeronauts follows a disparate pair of characters, one an earnest scientist eager to prove his theories, the other a daredevil showperson haunted by the death of her husband, as they make a perilous attempt to break the altitude record.

Their motivations are tepidly melodramatic, the conflicts that arise between them feel forced and contrived and the flashbacks to their preparations at ground level are expository and soapy. I understand why these respites were considered a necessity, with the majority of the drama playing out in a roughly 2x3 metre wicker basket, and brief, strong contributions from Tom Courtenay and Yesterday's Himesh Patel seemed needed to flesh out the main characters, but taking us away from the immediate jeopardy only exposes the weaknesses in the film's drama. A great deal of the film has a shallow, crowd-pleasing vacuousness that never works to further the films strengths.

However, those strengths are; Felicity Jones' performance as pilot Amelia Rennes is superb, she sweeps onscreen and takes effortless charge of the film displaying fortitude and vulnerability each in their right measures. We instantly take a liking to her big personality and fear for her bodily wellbeing 20,000 feet up in the sky. Eddie Redmayne is a much less novel creation, essentially a near cousin to his Newt Scamander, and his passion for meteorology is a lot harder to get invested in than a love of magical critters. Neither of their motivations are made to work but they are soundly likeable leads.

By far and away the greatest strength of the film is the pure, visceral terror of being very, very far from the ground, in the freezing cold, in a wicker basket, suspended from a giant bouncy castle built in the 1860s. As soon as the balloon took flight and we saw the ground drop away beneath them my hands balled up into sweaty fists and left nail marks in my palms. For all the strengths of a film like Gravity (I have heard this waggishly dubbed 'Steampunk Gravity') which I did find a much more solidly put together film in nearly every way, being in space is tougher to contextualise in the mind of the viewer. There is something truly existentially terrifying in the scale of the balloon, the vaulted sky above and the many empty fathoms below.

As I suggested earlier, it's pretty easy to make that scenario the stuff of nightmares, but I have to give credit to the film and it’s director Tom Harper (Wild Rose) for how tangible and real it made it feel. The ropes, the cold gathering a thick, crippling layer of frost over everything, the lightness of the air, the vast silk parachute above and how it buoys, buffets and whirls, and the atmosphere of tension is absolutely enthralling as one preposterous calamity after another befalls the couple, who might as likely drift off into space as fall to earth.

If you do go to see this, which on balance I do recommend, absolutely do so in the cinema, on as big a screen as you can. People often overstate the importance of that sort of thing, but in this instance, the film's qualities rely so heavily on its visceral thrills that I would consider it compulsory.