By John H. Foote
Adventure films are often dazzling visual treats for the audience. Consider the Indiana Jones tetralogy, beautiful films all, with splendid production design, exotic lavish locations, and constant motion driving the non stop narrative. Even if the film is more cerebral, such as John Houston’s soaring epic The Man Who Would Be King (1975), the beauty of the film is a secondary character that must be accepted and celebrated. This new film, another produced outside Hollywood by the Amazon Streaming Service or Amazon Studios, is like most adventure films, visually awe inspiring, spectacularly shot with stunning vistas in the sky, and a terrific score. However it is also like the balloons that populate the film, filled with a lot of hot air.
I had hoped for more considering the film reunites Eddie Redmayne and the luminous Felicity Jones who were together in The Theory of Everything (2014), which earned Redmayne an Oscar for Best Actor for his superb work as physicist Stephen Hawking and Jones as his wife, an Oscar nominee. They have a crackling chemistry, no question, and a lovely give and take with each other, but sadly, the narrative fails them in every way.
Set in London, England, 1862, an excited crowd gathers to witness the launch of a hot air balloon piloted by Amelia Wren (Jones), scientist and meteorologist James Glaisher (Redmayne) aboard to seenhow high they can soar and measure exactly what awaits them in the heavens. Glaisher is a conservative, very serious young man who wants the scientific community to take him seriously, having little patience for Wren’s grandstanding and showboat techniques meant to draw newspapers, to elevate her fame. What she knows that he does not is celebrity attracts funding, and the best way to get funding for his work is to make a spectacle of it all.
The purpose of Glaisher’s work is to break the record for altitude held by the French and to gather needed information which he believes will help with predicting the weather. What he does not count on is the intensity of the cold as they climb ever higher and the difficulty breathing thin air. Their lives are placed at risk by the power of the weather as their balloon climbs ever higher, thunder and lightning becoming life threatening.
As the thaw towards each other a friendship blossoms, and then in the confines of the air basket, something much deeper.
Tom Harper directs the film, capturing the risks involved in an air balloon, but having the good sense to focus on the relationship of the two leads. Sadly, the narrative just does not give them enough to truly flesh out their characters. Harper brings a genuine sense of awe and majesty to the scenes involving the danger in the heavens, yet struggle with the intimacies of the relationship between the couple.
Jones is a force of nature here as Wren, luminous in every frame, her bright eyes gleaming at her own antics, always scheming about what to do next. This is a confident portrayal of a very brash, confident young woman clearly having invaded a mans’ world. I loved watching her, just could not get enough of her.
Redmayne gives a problematic performance, reaching backwards to his early work where he stammered and stuttered his way through performances in Elizabeth I (2009) or The Good Shepard (2007). He was almost fey, girlish in some of that early work. Then he surprised everyone with a robust Marius in Les Miserables (2012) where he did his own singing and very well, especially the ghostly “Empty Chairs and Empty Tables” which was a highlight of the film. Two years later he won the Academy Award as Best Actor for his transformative work as Hawking, and earned a nomination the following year in The Danish Girl (2015). He retreated to affective, pretentious, busy acting in the two films set in the Harry Potter universe, as a Hogwarts wizard who must bring wildly imaginative creatures back to the famous castle. Too much “acting”.
Here his work is muted but still giving us another shy young man who cannot look this fierce woman in the eye. He would be no match for Wren and as and actor, Jones blew him off the screen.
Despite extraordinary cinematography and a fine score, the film, which should soar, never really gets off the ground.
One of Canada’s best-known film critics, he spent 10 years on TV as co-host of Reel to Real, and another 10 in education (still writing as a critic) as Director of the Toronto Film School, where he created the curriculum for three programs and taught film history. Film has always been his passion. He has written for magazines such as Toronto Life, Fashion and Hollywood North, been quoted in the Los Angeles and New York Times, as well as the major Toronto dailies. Online he has written for such sites as The Wrap, In Contention, Awards Circuit and The Cinemaholic. His first book Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker, was published in 2010. His second Steven Spielberg: American Film Visionary, a massive volume, has just found a publisher and he’s working on American Film Renaissance – 1967-2018 with Nick Maylor. As a critic, he has had the good fortune to interview directors and stars such as Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Clint Eastwood, Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Tom Cruise, Robert Duvall, Emma Stone, Jane Fonda, and countless others. As he quips, “Everyone but Jack Nicholson!”