To call “The Aeronauts” uplifting would be an understatement for a movie that shoots us into the sky in a gas-filled balloon with little preamble and a breathtaking array of special effects. Gorgeous and goofy, fanciful and unrepentantly old-fashioned, this Victorian adventure (it’s set in 1862) delights much more when its head is in the clouds than when its feet are on the ground.
The wellspring of the movie’s joie de vivre is Amelia Wren (a wonderful Felicity Jones), a fearless balloonist with a tragic past and a gift for exhibitionism. The movie opens with a rush as she arrives at a launch site astride the roof of a carriage, her peacock-hued frock and feathered headdress fluttering gaily. The crowd is ecstatic as she cartwheels around the waiting balloon under the disapproving gaze of her flight partner, the meteorologist James Glaisher (Eddie Redmayne). Glaisher is taking the trip to test his theories of weather prediction — this being London, those mostly amount to determining the likelihood of a drizzle versus a downpour — and Amelia’s carnival antics annoy him. He’s even more miffed when, after liftoff, she flings her little dog, Posey, out of the basket, accompanied by a spray of fireworks. Calm yourself, James: Posey has a parachute.
Swiftly establishing a stuffy-scientist-meets-sexy-daredevil dynamic, the director, Tom Harper, and his screenwriter, Jack Thorne, proceed to upend our gender expectations. While James fusses awkwardly with his pressure and altitude readings, Amelia is busily keeping them alive. The star of the movie in every way, she’s skilled and practical and brave: She’s the one with the common sense to bring oilskins and to recognize the dangers in the plummeting temperature and thinning air. That she also understands the benefits of publicity and showmanship is only a plus.
A composite of several real-life balloon trips (Glaisher is real and Wren is fictitious, but likely based on the flamboyant French balloonist Sophie Blanchard), “The Aeronauts” has a natural buoyancy that mostly resists the drag of its earthbound flashbacks. Stuffy scenes between James and his parents (Tom Courtenay and Anne Reid) alternate with his entreaties for money from the Royal Society, where his bewhiskered fellow scientists think he’s a hoot. After a few of these interludes, neither we nor the movie can wait to get back in that basket with Amelia.
Structural roadblocks aside, “The Aeronauts” is that rare adventure movie to celebrate the silence in which its wonders unfold. The cloud of butterflies that magically appears, and the flakes of snow that hover, seemingly stationary, around the balloon during its too-swift descent, are permitted to linger quietly on the screen and in the mind. By and by — in the film’s most terrifying sequence — as Amelia climbs up the balloon’s exterior to release a perilously frozen gas valve, George Steel’s cinematography has such a hushed and blinding beauty that it would be a crime to close your eyes.
Equal parts dizzying and dippy, “The Aeronauts” is family entertainment at its most charming and chaste. At some point, you realize you’ve been watching a romance blossom without a single kiss, but that shouldn’t be a surprise: What James and Amelia are really in love with is the sky.
Rated PG-13. Vertigo medication all around. Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes.