On the surface of it The Aeronauts looks like an entertaining but easy film. It has a nice inspiring historical story, some strong performances and some great period costumes but it isn’t challenging any cinematic conventions. In this sense it is exactly the type of movie that comes out at this time of the year when people are thinking about who all the awards are going to go to in a few months time. Cough, cough, Oscar bait, cough.
The Aeronauts is more than that though. If you look beyond the jolly action and adventure it is actually a fascinating portrait of two very complex characters whose fragile sense of worth causes them to push themselves beyond reasonable boundaries into self absorbed and very slightly sociopathic endangerment. The two leads are awfully nice but they are also just a little bit nuts.
The Aeronauts tells the partially true story of James Glaisher, a Victorian metrologist who in 1862 took a ride in a gas air balloon to heights never before achieved for the sake of scientific discovery. Interestingly Glaisher isn’t really the lead, or at the very least he shares that position, as he is accompanied on his voyage by one Amelia Rennes who is the balloon’s intrepid pilot. He was a real person while she was not but more on that later.
The film cleverly plays out in real time but rather than spend an hour and forty minutes in the basket with them, with the occasional scene of their loved ones fretting about them down on the ground, the narrative regularly flashes back to times in their lives that have lead them to where they are and who they have become. In doing so it punctuates the action, as the balloon flaps about in a storm and regularly threatens to pitch them over the side, with snapshots of ballroom and drawing room discussions, giving glimpses of their chipped psyches. I’m not trying to suggest that the pair are irreparably damaged souls but there is a reason why most people aren’t brave or bold enough to do what they do and there’s a definite reason why they are. This back and forth gives the balloon moments a depth they otherwise might not have had as the events on the ground define what happens in the air in quite subtle ways. Yes they are selfless explorers, let’s cheer them on. They are also a little tragic though and this draws us in.
Amelia’s tragedy is the most obvious. She has lost her husband in an aeronautical accident and suffers panic attacks and confidence issues at sometimes inopportune times. Her grief and survivors guilt has made her both cautious and foolhardy. James’ personality has been shaped by mocking and rejection from his scientist colleagues though and his desperation to prove himself has lead to his own predilection for unnecessary risk taking. Beneath their posh presentable exteriors both of them have a bit of a death wish, or at least a misguided willingness to sacrifice themselves. She because she isn’t sure she wants to live on and he because his work and legacy has to. Their concern for those they’d leave behind largely disappears at 28,000 ft and no wonder because at that height the world below has literally vanished. It is all captivating and in amongst the action The Aeronauts offers a fascinating character study.
That action when it comes is also pretty spectacular. If you suffer from vertigo at all then you may struggle with some of what goes on here, and if you don’t suffer from vertigo then you could well start to. As well as researching the weather, James and Amelia are also fighting it and there is great excitement and tension as they try to get up into the sky and then try to get down again. In places it is reminiscent of Gravity as they attempt to navigate their way back to terra firma and of Shackleton or The Revenant as they fight to survive in freezing temperatures with little resources to help them. (Even if a lot of the drama in this last respect stems from him leaving the house not thinking he’d need a coat, which seems a little silly under the circumstances but we’ve all been caught out like that at one time or another.)
For all its boys own adventure trappings The Aeronauts is also a very feminist film. Amelia is absolutely the hero of the piece. She is the Indiana Jones and Glaisher is the woman that comes along for the ride, not totally useless but dead for sure without their travelling companion’s expertise and fortitude. This aspect of the film is something else to celebrate but it is interesting then that he is real and she is made up. This is one of those rare casting cases where they have taken a character that was originally a man and thought ‘you know what, this guy could just as easily be a woman’ which is good but the person that actually accompanied Glaisher was Henry Tracy Coxwell, and here he has been written out of history. The feminist reasoning is strong but this does seem a little harsh. Amelia Rennes herself, while fictional, is actually based on two real women, Sophie Blanchard and Margaret Graham, who were both pioneering aeronauts of the age. Even though inserting either of them into Glaisher’s story might have been historically dubious by not doing so these women have also missed out on the chance to have their names known and their achievements celebrated. The Aeronauts is great for women then but perhaps not those two in particular.
Still, the amalgam woman we get is great and Felicity Jones’ performance in the role is quite brilliant. Her co-star Eddie Redmayne, reuniting with her after The Theory of Everything, is also strong but it is Jones’ movie. Redmayne took the Oscar the last time they acted together, even though she was just as good as he was. Maybe this time she’ll win out, even if it’s not trying to be that type of film.