Movie review: 'The Aeronauts' falls flat

Katie Walsh
Tribune News Service
Eddie Redmayne, left, and Felicity Jones star in "The Aeronauts." The movie is playing at Small Star Art House.

It's been a banner year for Tom Harper, who follows his fiery country music yarn "Wild Rose" with the Victorian hot air balloon adventure picture "The Aeronauts." One of these movies is irresistibly infectious with a big, beating heart, and the other, well, it's about Victorian hot air balloonists.

Felicity Jones and Eddie Redmayne team up once again for a tale about a scientist and his muse, with a script written by Harper and Jack Thorne, inspired by the true events of chronicled in Richard Holmes' book "Falling Upwards."

That is not to say "The Aeronauts" doesn't have a heart. The writers have taken great pains while inventing Jones' character, Amelia Wren, an amalgam of real pioneering female balloonists, to give her a tragic backstory in line with the women who took to the skies at great risk of life and limb. When we first meet Amelia, she's steeling herself for a potentially record-breaking ascent with (real-life) aspiring meteorologist James Glaisher (Redmayne), who has conscripted Amelia and her balloon into his quest for data he can use to predict the weather. Who knew learning about dew was such dangerous and risky business?

She still puts on a show for the assembled masses who have bought tickets to the liftoff. She's not just a showgirl, she's the pilot, but Amelia knows who pays for the balloon and its various adventures. She's determined to give her audience their money's worth, somersaulting and flinging glitter, casting a magical spell about what it means to touch the sky.

This short but potentially monumental flight serves as a framing device for flashbacks that illustrate how James and Amelia find themselves together in the balloon in the first place. An underdog and outsider, James is determined to prove himself in the scientific community, while Amelia needs to get back into the balloon to work through the grief of losing her aeronaut husband in a horrific accident.

Felicity Jones stars in "The Aeronauts." The movie is playing at Small Star Art House.

The character beats the script hits all feel so perfunctory and predictable, and though the story is wrapped around a novel idea, it's rather a snooze. What lifts "The Aeronauts" beyond such standard fare is Jones' performance as the self-possessed and plucky Amelia. She and Redmayne have an ease together on screen, but the physical limits to which their characters are pushed are truly surprising.

What's rather unexpected is how extreme the balloon stunts and their adventure gets, and "The Aeronauts" emphasizes the physically harrowing nature of the undertaking. As they ascend higher and higher, their journey becomes closer and closer to something like climbing Mount Everest with a crash landing. Some queasily vertiginous sequences are not for the faint of heart, but the sheen of CGI always reminds us of the unreality of the whole situation.

"The Aeronauts" details an interesting corner of scientific and expedition history in the Victorian era, but the story is laden with too much reverse-engineered treacly fiction. Although Jones is a joy to watch (as always), honestly, the real-life stories of the brave ballooning women are so much more compelling, and they didn't deserve to be mashed into a such a generic character.


2.5 stars

Cast: Felicity Jones, Eddie Redmayne, Himesh Patel, Vincent Perez, Phoebe Fox.

Directed by Tom Harper.

Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes.

Rated PG-13 for some peril and thematic elements.