Dramatizing a prime achievement in Victorian exploration, “The Aeronauts” pairs a real-life pioneering scientist with a fabricated charismatic showwoman and sends the two on a thrill ride, via hot-air balloon. Truth and depth aren’t the strong points of this high-altitude adventure, but as sheer entertainment, it delivers.
Directed by Tom Harper (“Wild Rose”) from a screenplay by Jack Thorne, the film is inspired by feats detailed in Richard Holmes’ book “Falling Upwards,” particularly the perilous 1862 mission in which early meteorologist James Glaisher and fellow aeronaut Henry Coxwell ascended about seven miles into the sky above London to research moisture at various altitude levels. Their findings helped scientists predict the weather.
Eddie Redmayne plays James Glaisher. The heroically performing Coxwell has been fictionalized into a flashy, norm-busting widow named Amelia (as in you-know-who) Wren, played by Felicity Jones.
Initially, James believes that Amelia, who cartwheels for the crowd and brings a parachute-outfitted dog into the balloon’s wicker basket, takes nothing seriously. Amelia thinks James is so obsessed with numbers and instruments that he can’t see grander realities. Both will demonstrate their mettle as the two travel to record-breaking heights and deal with unexpected trials.
These include a brutal storm and freezing temperatures. The latter cause James, who hasn’t brought along proper clothing, to lose consciousness. Additionally, a valve mishap threatens to fatally doom the mission.
The situation prompts Amelia, who’s experiencing exhaustion and frostbite (you’d think these seasoned scientists would wear gloves) to turn into a kicking, rope-climbing, careening action hero.
The film is formulaically structured, complete with a death-defying climax, and far from profound. (Some “reach for the stars,” while some “push others toward them,” says James’ colleague John Trew, played by Himesh Patel.)
Flashback overload, too, is a problem.
The filmmakers frequently interrupt the primary action with backstory sequences. We meet Amelia’s conformist sister (Phoebe Fox), James’ elderly parents (Tom Courtenay, Anne Reid) and stuffy colleagues with whom the forward-thinking James clashes. We learn about how Amelia’s husband, a fellow aeronaut, died during a flight tragedy.
Such scenes, most weakly written, break up the flow of superior material and do little to enrich the drama.
But Harper still creates satisfying entertainment, old-fashioned widescreen-adventure style. Wide-shot views of clouds, images of the balloon looking minuscule against the sky and a fluttering butterfly moment visually impress.
Redmayne and Jones, costars in “The Theory of Everything,” share a winning rapport, despite their underdeveloped characters. Jones, whose Amelia is based in part on balloonist Sophie Blanchard while also suggesting Sandra Bullock’s grief-plagued “Gravity” heroine, excels in action mode.
The two convey some of the excitement and awe that surely accompanied the experience of early air travel.
Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones, Himesh Patel, Phoebe Fox
Written by: Jack Thorne
Directed by: Tom Harper
Running time: 1 hour, 41 minutes