Would you like to ride in Eddie Redmayne’s beautiful balloon?
Tom Harper’s “The Aeronauts,” starring Felicity Jones and Redmayne, is loosely based on a record-setting 19th century balloon expedition into the atmosphere. On Sept. 5, 1862, James Glaisher (Redmayne) took off from London with the aim to ascend higher into the firmament than anyone had before in a balloon floated by coal gas.
Hot air balloons haven’t often been the favored modus of flight in movies. They have historically rated somewhere in between blimps and feathered bird suits. Since “The Wizard of Oz,” it’s been mostly losing air, save for the occasional cameo: the aloft opening of Tarkovsky’s “Andrei Rublev” (1966), the harrowing runaway balloon of the Ian McEwan adaptation “Enduring Love” (1997).
But Harper, the British director of one of the year’s most pleasant surprises, “Wild Rose,” has tried to bring some modern flare to the old balloon, utilizing computer generated effects to send soaring its star attraction: a red-and-white striped Victorian contraption graced by a band of aqua blue and a thicket of ropes and sandbags.
More notably, “The Aeronauts” has also crafted an entirely fictional character out of the ether, pairing Glaisher with a female pilot named, a little too perfectly, Amelia Wren (Felicity Jones). Glaisher was actually accompanied by Henry Coxwell, and Wren’s substitution is, from the start, self-consciously far-fetched. Not because she’s a woman (there were equally adventurous female balloonists) but because she enters the movie as such an extravagant figment of dramatic imagination.
Before the balloon’s much-anticipated liftoff before a crowd that has bought tickets for the event, Wren comes careening in at the last moment atop a charging horse-drawn wagon, and then commences to regale the audience with acrobatics that continue after the balloon is off the ground. He’s there for the science. She’s there for the entertainment.
“This is absurd,” grumbles Glaisher as Wren dangles in midair, and it’s hard to disagree. “The Aeronauts,” particularly at first, sags under the weight of a schmaltzy concept, tedious flashbacks and reach-for-the-sky metaphors that, given the mission, are a little too close at hand.
But as the balloon rises, the film does too. Not because it achieves the kind of splendor it seems to seeking, exactly, but because it grows simpler and even sillier. “The Aeronauts” turns into not a prestige picture but a novel big-screen adventure — even if Amazon has truncated the film’s exclusive theatrical release to two weeks before it begins streaming.
Part of that is from the thrill of upward movement, as the balloon rises above a windy storm into tranquility above the clouds and, later, nearer the starry expanse of space. As they ascend, Glaisher’s excitement at their findings grows while the temperatures drop. The atmosphere was then an airy, little-understood foreign land. (Jack Thorne’s script is derived partially from Richard Holmes’ 2013 book “Falling Upwards: How We Took to the Air.”)
“The Aeronauts” re-teams Redmayne and Jones who memorably starred in 2014’s “The Theory of Everything,” the movie that won Redmayne an Oscar. But this time, it’s Jones who dominates the film, including one genuinely spectacular scene in which she scales the outside of the balloon — a scene all the more powerful for its frozen quiet, occurring at the upper reaches of the stratosphere. She might not be real, but she steals the show.
“The Aeronauts,” an Amazon Studios release, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America some peril and thematic elements. Running time: 100 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.
Follow AP Film Writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP