The Aeronauts is designed to dazzle, both visually and in terms of its time-hopping storytelling structure, yet its impact is as wispy as the air that its hot-air balloons soar through. As often as the film takes to the air, its earthbound scenes are dry and dull, giving off the vague whiff of dramatic leftovers.
Felicity Jones plays Amelia Wren, a showman-like performer in 1860s London who leads a manned flight to the sky in the hopes of beating the height record in a hot-air balloon.
She joined by fledgling meteorologist James Glaisher (Eddie Redmayne), whose ambitions are in essentially proving to the top-hatted gentlemen of the Royal Society of London that meteorology is a real, legitimate science.
For Amelia, the desire is to put the tragic death of her husband, a fellow ballooning adventurer, into the past and prove that she can go on expeditions of her own without his presence. But the structure of the script, courtesy of writer Jack Thorne and director Tom Harper, is such that the story jumps back and forth in time before the opening credits have begun to roll.
Instead, the trip is seen in bits and pieces, fits and starts that continually allow The Aeronauts to never feel entirely disappointing, even as it never achieves the kind of dramatic heights it hopes to. By starting the film at such a late point, we first meet Amelia largely as a figure of fancy, a full-on flibbertigibbet who seems more impressed with putting on a show for an adoring crowd (including tossing her own dog overboard on the balloon only to reveal that it fitted with a parachute) than on scientific choices.
(Himesh Patel of Yesterday plays a close friend of James', but his character is defined by never joining Glaisher in the balloon.