There is something disarming about the joint presence of the ever-bashful Eddie Redmayne and the fiercely charismatic Felicity Jones that instantly feels wholesome. So when the duo embarks on a hot air balloon adventure in “Wild Rose” director Tom Harper’s “The Aeronauts,” you can’t help but tag along and root for “The Theory of Everything” co-stars. Playing a pair of complementary trailblazers that start off on the wrong foot, the duo hand-in-hand elevates Harper’s 1862-set, based-on-a-true-story film, from a flimsy action-adventure to something worth watching on the biggest possible screen, even if it operates on a handful of clichés with little character-based substance to speak of.
Which is why Amazon Studios’ two-week-only exclusive theatrical window slated for December is a curious release strategy for a film whose greatest selling point is the reasonable amount of greenscreen visual wonder it delivers through a pair of enchanting leads. With his signature on-screen amiability (even when his character is being difficult or grumpy), Redmayne plays real-life scientist James Glaisher, who dreams of a future advanced through the study of meteorology. Jones on the other hand portrays a well-off widow named Amelia Wren, an idealistic, gifted yet fictional aeronaut who’d rather hover on the edge of the atmosphere than adhere to the typical duties expected of the women of her era.
In a script written by Jack Thorne (who shares story credit with Harper), Wren is a stand-in for Henry Coxwell, Glaisher’s actual co-aeronaut who, along with the scientist, rose in the air over London and flew up to 37,000 ft. in a mission designed to observe and research the weather. While the gender swap (still a go-to Hollywood trend) is strange in its dismissal of historical accuracy, it works within the context of “The Aeronauts” that sees both parties of the two-hander as physical and intellectual equals. And to the film’s credit, the chemistry between the leads doesn’t resolve to a predictable case of romance.
This one risky invention aside, the script unfortunately settles for the bare minimum to define James and Amelia, and steadily loses air when it reaches for melodramatic clichés. Tedious and increasingly unwelcome flashbacks feel exasperating as they continually interrupt the balloon’s graceful yet perilous glide over London and undercut the brainy tête-à-tête between the leads. Through these choppy glimpses into the past, we learn about James’ lifelong scientific ambitions that haven’t always been popular among his skeptical fellows and get served a brief introduction to his father (Tom Courtenay), who battles with a worsening case of dementia. The flashbacks also elucidate Amelia’s simplistic reasons to aviate — what’s she to do if not flee to the skies when she still deeply mourns the death of her husband (Vincent Perez) and clashes with her traditional, vocally disapproving sister Antonia (Phoebe Fox)?
Still, the eventually record-breaking expedition gets off to a flying start, with the performative Amelia putting on an entertaining show (involving a dog with a parachute, no less) for the thousands of Londoners who gather around to see the balloon’s liftoff. Though once the journey truly takes its shape, the story only barely forges a believable kinship between the two leads.
And even with the CGI-heavy visual beauty of the skies (enhancing stunts filmed high above ground, and rendered through cinematographer George Steel’s feather-light lens) and the glorious production design of David Hindle and Christian Huband, “The Aeronauts” settles into something airless, begging for some action set pieces to pick up the pace. One that swiftly brings to mind scenes from Alfonso Cuarón’s “Gravity” finally arrives, sending Jones — bruised and battered in freezing temperatures — into the film’s most genuinely exciting sequence. With her bare, bleeding hands visibly threatened by frostbite, Amelia climbs to the top of the icy balloon to save the increasingly unreliable vehicle from crashing, while a mentally unstable, oxygen-starved James’ life hangs in the balance.
If you can ignore the puzzling costuming of Alexandra Byrne that fails to dress the co-stars in weather-appropriate clothes — Jones sports a stylish oil-skin/leather combo jacket that doesn’t look all that warm at 5° Fahrenheit, while both of the actors lack proper hats and gloves — the high-altitude scenes of “The Aeronauts” are satisfying to take in, especially with the backdrop of Steven Price’s old-fashioned score. If only the film also offered something grounded in its pace and emotions as appealing as its sky-high showcase of special effects.