In September 1862, in the industrial town of Wolverhampton, Aeronaut pioneer Henry Coxwell piloted a balloon for Dr James Glaisher, a scientist employed to make meteorological experiments at dangerously high altitude. Glaisher’s last barometer reading recorded a height of 29,000 feet after which he lost consciousness in the thin air and extreme cold (at one point reaching -29C). Coxwell only averted complete disaster when, having lost all sensation in his hands, he managed to pull the valve-cord with his teeth before losing consciousness, ensuring the balloon would return to the ground and their lives saved. Later calculations established that at the pinnacle of their ascent they achieved a record altitude of 35,000 – 37,000 feet.
You’ll have noticed from the image I’ve posted at the head of this post, though, that The Aeronauts is not that story. Out goes Wolverhampton (and as a Wolverhampton lad myself, that smarts) and out goes Henry Coxwell, replaced here by beautiful young and dazzling Amelia Wren (Felicity Jones), female Aeronaut trying to atone for the tragic death of her husband in an earlier ballooning accident. Meanwhile Glaisher, portrayed by handsome young and dazzling Eddie Redmayne as a struggling outcast trying to prove his theories to his dismissive and condescending peers, was actually a 52-year old founding member of the Meteorological Society who was hired by the British Association for the Advancement of Science to fly in the balloon.
Well I’ll cut The Aeronauts some slack. We should not expect the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, from movies. Even historical dramas play rather fast and loose with the facts. Its all part of converting what can be dry events into exciting drama, ensuring it works as entertainment, something at which The Aeronauts certainly works. Its a very interesting, exciting and dramatic film that works brilliantly well. I actually think what is most interesting about The Aeronauts is what it tells us about our modern society. I suppose the choice to rewrite a male character as a woman was most likely just a cynical, if understandable, commercial decision to reunite Felicity Jones and Eddie Redmayne who had earlier starred in the successful historical biopic The Theory of Everything. I guess the idea of teaming up the duo for another period drama seemed like a sure winner. On the other hand, its a deplorable rewriting of history to further social awareness agendas regarding the portrayal of women.
Twenty years ago, I suppose Felicity Jones would have played a female James Glaisher and Eddie Redmayne would have played Henry Coxwell, who would have been haunted by the past death of his own wife in a ballooning accident and would have achieved absolution by ensuring the safety of Glaisher in the record-making attempt. You know, write a female role into the film but ensure its a male hero who saves the day. Instead, Redmayne plays an ambitious albeit out of his depth scientist ill-equipped for his experiments and only saved by the bravery and fortitude of our heroine. There’s nothing wrong with that, its just interesting where we are now with role-models and their depiction in film and television: female empowerment and the emasculation of traditional male archetypes, YouTube is full of noise about all that, whether it be in the Star Wars films or Dr Who or just about anything else these days.
Away from the noise of revisionary history and social sexual agendas, The Aeronauts works very well even if it suffers from predictable dramatic tropes. Felicity Jones is very good – indeed, quite brilliant, reminding me of just how good she was back in Rogue One. Redmayne suffers from a character trapped in those hackneyed predictable tropes of having to believe in himself against the derision of his peers (eventually winning grudging respect and praise at films end, especially when his biggest detractor relents and applauds him) and during the ascent dramatically taking a back seat to our heroines heroics. The photography and visual effects depicting the ascent is utterly beautiful and arresting (I’m sure a 4K UHD disc would be gorgeous, but the 4K stream on Amazon is no slouch) and there’s plenty edge-of-your-seat moments to maintain interest whenever the drama threatens to suffer one too many flashbacks.
Its just a pity that the many achievements of the film might be overshadowed by some of that revisionary work made in the telling of the story. I worry a little that the film so casually misinforms when it purports from the outset to be ‘based on real events’ when its really just a historical fantasy, and while perhaps no worse for that, film-makers should have a little more respect for the reality.
It occurred to me when watching this film that it was an idealistic drama of what should have happened in a perfect world, rather than what really happened. That raises a question though: is there really any harm as long as the public are advised its not really as ‘true’ as it infers it is, or is there harm in that pretending? Women were terribly marginalised in what was very much a man’s world back in 1862, and while we have thankfully moved on since then, I think its dangerous, if not just disingenuous that we pretend things were better than they were. Oh well, its only a movie!
The Aeronauts is currently showing on Amazon Prime