If you’d been pining to see Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones of “The Theory of Everything” together again, “The Aeronauts” is the ticket. Boy, are they together — confined for long stretches in a hot-air balloon basket about the size of your bathroom. That’s the good part, as claustrophobic as it sounds.
Once again Redmayne is cast as a real-life change-making scientist: Here, he’s 19th-century English meteorologist James Glaisher, the man responsible for determining what dew point is, for good or ill. He’s a champion of the new discipline of climatology, vainly trying to persuade his peers that weather can be predicted. “We are scientists, not fortunetellers!” one scoffs.
Jones is Amelia Wren, a fictional composite of several pioneering female balloonists. (Who knew there was such a thing in Victorian England?) Haunted by the ballooning death of her husband, with whom she had forged a loving and adventurous life, she’s understandably hesitant to take to the skies again.
But the funding-challenged Glaisher is persistent. He needs Wren’s expertise (and her family money) to conduct a series of airborne experiments. Another film might steer his wooing in a romantic direction; refreshingly, the two remain respectful colleagues. Love, frankly, would just gum up the works.
The balloon journey itself unfolds nearly in real time, and you’re surprised to see that it has taken only minutes to rise to 20,000, 25,000, 30,000 feet. You’re also surprised to see how few precautions are taken against the brutal subzero atmosphere. The basket even is outfitted with furniture, including a little desk at which Glaisher makes notes with his fountain pen at the aforementioned 30,000 feet, before he falls unconscious from altitude sickness.
The suspension of disbelief soars highest when Wren, attempting to unclog a frozen valve at the very top of the balloon, climbs from the basket, clinging to the webbing that girds the giant gaseous blob, without gloves, then takes off her high-heeled boot to hammer the valve free. All at 7 miles above the Earth. Realistic? Who knows? But it’s a breathtaking, thrilling sequence that puts Jones in the pantheon of 2019 film superheroes.
By contrast, the rest of “The Aeronauts” feels, well, deflated. The gravity-defying feats (Glaisher really did set an altitude record, and nearly died in the process) are jarringly interposed with flashbacks and other earthbound side stories. Poor Himesh Patel (“Yesterday”), as Glaisher’s comrade Henry Coxwell, is reduced to gazing heavenward and tossing off such banalities as, “Some reach for the stars; some push others towards them.” It’s a pity, because Coxwell was Glaisher’s actual right-hand man for his record-setting flights.
But the choice to replace Coxwell with a fictional heroine pays off; Jones is the undisputed star of this two-hander. Whether spitting out proto-feminist psychobabble or deftly working the ropes with icicles rimming her hair, she’s appealingly plucky. Too bad even she can’t keep the proceedings aloft.