Friday 15 November 2019

Basket case: "The Aeronauts"

If they were giving out awards for Best Behaved Motion Picture, The Aeronauts would win hands down. Here is the anti-Sorry We Missed You: a film that means to carry us up, up and away in a beautiful balloon over the nasty business of Brexit and Britain as it is at the end of 2019. Peer out of one side of the basket, and you can still see the Downton Abbey movie receding over the horizon; peer out the other, and you can see Tom Hooper's adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Cats getting awfully close. Its stars are Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones, appointed during 2014's The Theory of Everything as British cinema's freshest-faced prefects; it concludes with a song by winsome teen popstrel Sigrid that will have 'em sobbing in the aisles come the end-of-term concert. It is, in everything from its well-appointed supporting cast to its considerable production design, absolutely a film that did all its homework on the first day of the summer holidays, not the last. The question that hangs over it, as its balloon hovers over the London of 1862, is why this project has been floated by Jack Thorne and Tom Harper, the writer-director pairing who announced themselves as such irreverent, spirited souls with 2009's The Scouting Book for Boys and 2014's War Book? Is it just a prerequisite of the British film industry - that, sooner or later, no matter what your credits, you have to make nice, bland Sunday afternoon telly?

Perhaps Thorne and Harper were drawn by the story's self-reflexive aspect: on one level, The Aeronauts is about putting on a show of sorts, capturing the public's imagination. Redmayne and Jones play the real-life balloonatic James Glaisher and his (wholly fictional) assistant Amelia Wren, roped in to provide a patina of Debbie McGee-esque glamour to our pernickety Paul Daniels of a hero. We join them as Glaisher's world record height attempt first goes vertical to the delight of hundreds of tophatted extras pretending that they don't have access to WiFi and the Untitled Goose Game; thereafter, select London landmarks seen from on high prompt flashbacks that fill in how Glaisher got off the ground. If the structure proves as careworn as those armchairs The Aeronauts will eventually be watched from, the pair's progress at least generates a modicum of diverting spectacle. It's almost a pity the film is being released straight-to-streaming in overseas territories, because watching The Aeronauts on the big screen allows viewers to play a genteel version of Where's Wally? as it sets out over a careful CG rendering of the south of Britain as it was in the 19th century: ooh, look, you go, there's Tate Modern back in the day when it was a functioning industrial hub. Late on in the ascent, Glaisher's balloon is surrounded by an escort of migrating yellow butterflies; and Harper is savvy enough to know how can yield some rudimentary effect, once the balloon clears a certain height, simply by tilting his camera over the side of the vessel, and looking out into the void, the death his characters are defying.

If The Aeronauts has a secondary function beyond pretty distraction, it may be as part of a learning curve: it very much looks like Harper, whose TV and film work up to and including this April's Wild Rose has been largely earthbound, is schooling himself to make an effects-heavy movie, of the kind that now makes up 75% of all mainstream cinema. (He is, in every sense, upwardly mobile.) We're almost in the vertiginous realms of Alfonso Cuaron's much-admired Gravity - a man and a woman, being shaken around up high in the stratosphere - although it's crucial to The Aeronauts' altogether more modest ambition that Glashier and Wren don't pass all that far beyond the cloudline. I don't know about the best British film, but the results may constitute the most British film of the year, in that much of the dialogue involves people talking about the weather. What Thorne and Harper evoke most vividly here, as temporary turbulence gives way to an increasingly heavy frost, is the experience of watching isobars of low pressure sweep in across a map on the Met Office website. It's not just the scenery, in other words; the whole damn movie could have been computer generated, perhaps by using the keywords "British period drama, only higher". Which is to say that the film's human interest - a field in which these creatives have previously excelled - is modest to minimal: we're just stranded in a basket for the duration with two people who, even before some of those clouds break, appear hopelessly wet.

Repeated exposure has revealed Redmayne as a limited performer; here, removed of even that shy magic he gave Newt Scamander, he just comes over as tweedily uninteresting. Jones, who similarly felt like a find a few years back, hasn't progressed beyond the kind of tics Keira Knightley worked very hard to get past, principally a tendency to part her lips at moments of advanced drama to reveal her top front teeth, yet it hardly matters, since the fictional Amelia, like a petticoated Tyler Durden, is really only here to give our hero somebody to talk to. Given that Thorne and Harper mined crackling tension from War Book's one-room location, The Aeronauts wouldn't have suffered from being confined entirely to that basket, with Glaisher as a premonition of Donald Crowhurst, battling the elements on his own. We get a version of that in the (pretty good) final reel, but it's been tarted up with romantic notions of self-sacrifice, and a voguish, unpersuasive attempt to convert a sidekick into a superwoman. As with the earlier period trappings, this is the work of filmmakers doing what the industry wants them to do, swottishly taking notes, rather than going their own way. A fair bit of craft has been expended on the process - the craft you perhaps only get access to when you promise to behave yourself - and there are scenes where you forget you're watching two actors on a soundstage surrounded by overheating green screens. Yet it still feels like half a movie, forever more stirring up in the air than down on the ground, and half of that - the Amelia half - is hot air with no historical basis whatsoever. Thorne and Harper have proven an incisive, valuable partnership elsewhere, but there's a lot of padding here; The Aeronauts thus heads towards a predictably soft landing, on screen as, it would seem, at the box-office.

The Aeronauts is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

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