Is it Gravity for 19th-century steampunks, or a petticoat romance at 35,000 feet? The Aeronauts never seems entirely sure what kind of movie it wants to be, even as it reunites The Theory of Everything costars Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones in an adventure drama that feels purposefully (if somewhat wonkily) built for prestige-season acclaim.
The story, based in part on real people and history, opens on a hot-air balloon launch in 1862 London, when the art of event marketing was apparently still in its early stages — and only Jones’ flamboyant Amelia Wren has gotten the memo on modern show(wo)manship.
Dolled up like a Moulin Rouge! chorus girl with bright circles of rouge on each cheek and a tiny dog in tow, she plays to the audience while Redmayne’s James Glaisher fusses with straps and dials, looking vaguely exasperated. While he rolls his eyes, the crowd roars in appreciation, and soon they’re off, soaring up and away from the madding crowd into serene birds-eye silence — two near-strangers thrown together by fate and circumstance with the goal of breaking a previous world record for elevation. They’ll either go down in history, or just go down.
Having gotten his two stars airborne, director and cowriter Tom Harper (Peaky Blinders, War & Peace) now has them captive, a sort of large-scale bottle episode in the sky. As they bicker and parry, the narrative flashes back to their earlier meetings and personal histories — he’s hoping to legitimize the still-nascent field of weather prediction, she to overcome a terrible personal tragedy — and it quickly becomes clear how recklessly unplanned their whole journey is.
When disaster inevitably arrives, the movie’s tension tightens, bringing Jones into sharp focus. It’s only a small spoiler to say that as the film’s tone swings abruptly from a sort of fizzy Tim Burton-Baz Luhrman burlesque to something much starker and more harrowing, she essentially becomes her own action hero.
Those sequences are both terrifying and gripping to watch, and somewhat improved by the withdrawal of Redmayne’s fussy, recessive character — a supposed man of science whose eagerness and ego renders him curiously blind to the basic laws of physics.
Jones reportedly did nearly all the stunts herself in a real balloon, and she makes the stakes feel fretfully real despite the dreamy, almost painterly quality of George Steel’s cinematography. By the time the story comes back to earth, though, that urgency is largely gone with the wind, and the film returns to what it was: a whimsical, oddly airless curiosity. B–
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