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Review: Felicity Jones and Eddie Redmayne can’t help hot air balloon drama ‘The Aeronauts’ lift off

The virtues of “The Aeronauts” are real but they are almost exclusively visual. Despite the hard work of acclaimed actors in what sounds on paper like a strong story, the drama presented is determinedly earth-bound.

The stars in question are Felicity Jones and Eddie Redmayne, who previously collaborated in “The Theory of Everything,” for which Redmayne won an Oscar.

Clearly eager to work together again, the actors were attracted by the combination of director Tom Harper and screenwriter Jack Thorne, both of whose credits are heavier in TV and theater than film. And by what sounded like a highly dramatic, highly visual tale.

That would be the “inspired by true events” story of British scientist James Glaisher and his determined quest in the year 1862 to go higher in a balloon than the record-holding French, higher in fact than anyone had ever gone before.

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As its title indicates, much of “The Aeronauts” takes place in a balloon floating above England. Cinematographer George Steel, shooting from a balloon, a helicopter and who knows what else, has captured a series of splendid visuals, allowing us to experience what floating above the Earth in a tiny basket must feel like.

Speaking of tiny baskets, the production has gone to the trouble of constructing what it describes as “a fully functioning and accurate replica of a 19th century gas balloon,” christened the Mammoth in the film and measuring 80 feet tall and 55 feet wide. It is impressive.

it’s a shame that this film’s initially planned IMAX theatrical window did not materialize. If ever a film would be a special treat to see blown up that large, it’s would be this one.

(Given all this, it’s a shame that this film’s initially planned IMAX theatrical window did not materialize. If ever a film would be a special treat to see blown up that large, it’s this one.)

The drama attached to the images, however, resolutely refuses to catch fire despite strenuous efforts in that direction. It feels, almost against its will, like a Boys Own family adventure, a Saturday matinee special rather than an involving drama for adults.

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“The Aeronauts” starts with a woman in a rush to get to a balloon ascent in London’s Vauxhall Pleasure Garden. Amelia Wren (Jones) is not a spectator, she is one of the people going up, but we soon see that she has her doubts.

Waiting at the balloon is scientist Glaisher, a real person and pioneer meteorologist. (Wren, though inspired by real aeronauts, is invented.)
As we soon discover, these two, though scheduled to ascend together, do not get along at all. He is a humorless fussbudget forever fiddling with the dials of his instruments while she, a veteran balloon pilot, is a showboat and a performer with a gift for exciting the launch crowd.

‘The Aeronauts’ movie
Eddie Redmayne, left, and Felicity Jones in “The Aeronauts.”
(Amazon Studios)

How did people so different come to share that basket space? A series of flashbacks fills us in.

Glaisher, as it turns out, is a zealot for making a science out of weather predicting, thereby saving lives, something the graybeards of the Royal Society scoff at. The scientist thinks this can be done by analyzing atmospheric conditions above the clouds, which causes even more scoffing.

Wren, we gradually learn, is suffering from a form of PTSD because of events surrounding the death of her husband, Pierre (Vincent Perez), a pioneer aeronaut and her copilot.
Wren and Glaisher meet in the aftermath of the husband’s death. He needs her help to get up in the air but she insists, “I am not a coachman for hire.” An impassioned plea by Glaisher’s friend John Trew (Himesh Patel) eventually brings her around.

The heart of “Aeronauts,” not surprisingly, is what happens as the balloon goes higher and higher, as salutations like “clouds ahoy” are exchanged and wonders like an aureole or circular rainbow are observed.

The two intrepid voyagers are also in danger of losing their lives for a variety of reasons, including the increased cold and diminishing oxygen in the atmosphere as they ascend.

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One of “Aeronauts’” more agreeable tropes is the role-reversal notion that has the more experienced Wren rescuing the novice Glaisher more often than he saves her.

Both Jones and Redmayne have tried hard to make the film’s narrative convincing, even going so far as plunging their hands into ice between takes so they could shiver convincingly onscreen.

Unfortunately, all these adventures read more convincing on the page than they play on a non-IMAX screen. The balloon goes up, but the drama does not fly.

'The Aeronauts'
Rating: PG-13, for some peril and thematic elements

Running time: 1 hour, 41 minutes

Playing: In general release; on Amazon Prime Dec. 20




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