If “Rogue One” taught us nothing, aside from the sure knowledge that it’s not hard to find somebody better than J.J. Abrams to make a “Star Wars” movie, it’s that we should never under-estimate Felicity Jones’ ability to “sell” an action sequence.
In “The Aeronauts,” an old fashioned and grounded bit of historical balderdash, the Oscar-nominated Jones plays a Victorian Era lady daredevil with verve, grit and conviction. She makes us buy in, even as we’re thinking, “If ANY of this really happened, that’s a helluva story I’ve never heard a thing about.”
It’s the sort of adventure tale that Hollywood stopped making 50 years ago, a beautifully-detailed period piece “inspired by true events” with a heaping helping of pure hokum.
Jones’ “Theory of Everything” co–star Eddie Redmayne plays pioneering meteorologist James Glaisher in 1860s Britain. Brittainia may “rule the waves,” but Glaisher is getting nowhere getting The Royal Society to accept his theory that if we learn enough about the atmosphere, we can start giving the people that “five day forecast” they’ve been craving.
He is stymied, unless he can convince some balloonist, “aeronaut” in the parlance of that pre-Wright Brothers day, to take him aloft.
His last, best chance happens to be a traveling balloon pilot with a sideshow barker’s appeal and showmanship to burn.
She’s also a woman. Amelia Rennes (pronounced “Wren”) is quite the bird, all pancake makeup and gaudy costume, making her entrance riding on the roof of a carriage, dazzling the paying customers for this “stunt” with a few cartwheels, her trusty traveling companion Jack Russell and not a lot of regard for this “weathersmith,” as one wag calls him.
They’re forced to get along for just this one long day, a record-attempt ascent, hoping to pass those meddlesome French and reach the highest altitude ever achieved in 1862.
The script wastes far too much time on the whole “You don’t take me seriously, so I shan’t take YOU seriously!” She’s “You should be taking in this beautiful world we’ve just left” and he’s “I’m a scientist. You’re the pilot. We should stick to our ROLES.”
The “Theory of Everything” stars click together. Remember, Redmayne won the best actor Oscar for that one, and Jones was nominated as best supporting actress.
Here, the roles are reversed, as flashbacks show us Rennes’ life trials and her disapproving sister (Phoebe Fox) disapproving, and Glaisher’s (Pronounced “glacier,” how cute is that?) skeptical parents (Tom Courtenay and Anne Reid) being skeptics.
Himesh Patel and Tim McInnerny turn up as James’ best friend and his biggest doubter at the Royal Society.
Director Tom Harper (“Wild Rose”) lets the Victorian melodrama in Jack Thorne’s script take over, which is worth an eyeroll or two. But Jones sets her jaw, narrows her eyes and battles the elements, the height, the primitive technology and the high altitude unknown like the action heroine she can be.
Pity her character in “Rogue One” had to die. But she lives on every time this seemingly delicate but always plucky Englishwoman takes on a daunting role and makes us believe that she’s the last woman on Earth you should underestimate when the chips are down and the balloon is up.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some peril and thematic elements
Cast: Felicity Jones, Eddie Redmayne, Phoebe Fox, Himesh Patel, Tom Courtenay and Tim McInnerny
Credits: Directed by Tom Harper, script by Jack Thorne. An Amazon Studios release.
Running time: 1:40