Rating: (1.5 stars)
You’d be hard-pressed to name a movie scene this year that draws more shivers and gasps that the sequence in “The Aeronauts” in which Felicity Jones — playing an intrepid balloonist, or aeronaut — traverses the side of a hot-air balloon floating 35,000 feet above the Earth. Wind whipping and clouds swirling, she clings to the side with teeth gritted, in single-minded pursuit of a lever to prevent the balloon from ascending further. At the risk of cliche, it’s breathtaking and stomach-turning.
The only problem? That scenes comes nearly two-thirds into an otherwise drab, uninvolving film that overdoses on schmaltzy melodrama, yet comes up well short of any tension, let alone pleasant amusement.
Loosely inspired by actual events, the film follows the fictional Amelia Wren and the real-life meteorologist and ornery scientist James Glaisher (played by Eddie Redmayne, who won an Oscar opposite Jones in “The Theory of Everything”), as they attempt to set a record for the highest-altitude hot-air balloon flight. The movie opens in 1862 with the pair setting off from a stadium in London, surrounded by a crowd of eager onlookers basking in Amelia’s theatrics, which include dropping a dog from their basket in midair. (Don’t worry, it’s wearing a parachute.)
James rolls his eyes at such madness, which he sees as a distraction from his academic inquiry. But Redmayne’s gentle features are ill-suited for such an indignant character, and he can’t seem to muster much energy for even the most impassioned scenes. Jones fares better, shining most on those rare occasions when her character gets to have a little fun.
Although the historical Glaisher actually partnered with a male balloonist, Henry Coxwell, Jack Thorne’s screenplay swaps in a female character because, as director Tom Harper told the List, he wanted the characters “to be reflective of a contemporary audience.” Instead of this cynical attempt at virtue signaling, the filmmakers would have been better served by a story that didn’t involve a heroine who spends the entire film mourning her dead husband.
That thread gets developed in stultifying flashbacks that detail Amelia’s efforts to strike out on her own as an aeronaut after her husband falls to his death during one of their rides together. Other scenes flesh out the challenges James faces in lobbying his fellow scholars about the potential for air travel to expand scientific knowledge. Himesh Patel, whose singing charmed audiences in “Yesterday,” shows up as James’s only devoted friend, but the actor doesn’t make much of an impression. The same goes for Tom Courtenay, as James’s mentally deteriorating father.
Full of stock characters and leaden dialogue, these interludes only underscore what the audience already knows, blunting the momentum of the central duo’s balloon ride. It will come as no surprise that, as the trip wears on, the pair comes to admire each other’s contributions, particularly in the face of inclement weather and other complications.
In fact, the movie is at its strongest when the weather is at its fiercest: ominous storm clouds on the horizon as Amelia and James embark on their journey foreshadow a slew of assaults by Mother Nature. The screenplay gets outs of its own way and lets the raw power of altitude drive the movie forward — but not nearly enough.
“The Aeronauts” is the second film this year by Harper to get a U.S. release, after “Wild Rose.” That film was excellent, with strong music and an effervescent star turn from newcomer Jessie Buckley. This one is, at moments, exhilarating — but not much else.
PG-13. At area theaters. Contains peril and mature thematic elements. 101 minutes.
The movie is produced and distributed by Amazon Studios. Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.