‘The Aeronauts’: Not a Win for Women Movie/ Review AFI Fest 2019 ☆☆☆

An aeronaut is “one who operates or travels in an airship or balloon” and this movie, “The Aeronauts,” is based on the daring true story of two aeronauts, but deletes the hero of this true incident and replaces him with a woman. That’s a sad twist of fate in these supposedly enlightened times. The hero becomes a heroine in order to make this something of a romantic adventure film, but to do so erases a real woman. Not exactly a win for women or feminism. “The Aeronauts” is a triumph of CGI, creating a beautiful yet dangerous world in and above the clouds. 

The heroine also takes a first name filled with historic links to a female flight pioneer and then a surname that makes one think of flight: Amelia Wren (Felicity Jones). When we first meet Amelia she is flustered; memories make her almost nauseous. She’s dressed coquettishly, in off-white dress with a too short skirt and large colorful ornamentation. A widow, she has more experience maneuvering balloons at high altitudes, but also almost died during one tragic flight–the final one with her husband (Vincent Perez).

Arriving late on the launch for this historic event, she quickly takes over, providing some flash of flesh by doing cartwheels. She also makes the spectators gasp when she tosses her dog down to the crowd as they gain altitude. The pup doesn’t plunge to this death; it has a parachute that allows it to gently waft down.

For the scientist on board, James Glaisher, much is at stake. In flashbacks, we learn he has conjectured that with more studies, weather can be predicted using information from high altitudes. His views are derided and his reputation as a scientist hangs in the balance. He desperately needed funding and a pilot. Glaisher sought out the daring Wren at a society ball that her sister (Phoebe Fox) dragged her to and where she quickly puts Glaisher in his place. His clothes are outdated. His dancing atrocious. Surely, he is crashing the party.

Eventually, they do get funding and she hesitates due to her haunting memories, but they do get up an in the air and that’s where despite her supposedly no-nonsense approach, she dangles without a safety line. You get to feel both the wonder and the danger. The sheer stupidity of that seems a stunt to make us aware of their near disastrous daring.  And while Wren eventually peels off her peacock clothing to reveal more sensible apparel, Glaisher had no warm weather clothes. Things are not going to go well. The film uses superimposed graphics, so we understand how high the balloon is and the time duration. The movie does reveal some aspects of nature that you are, as I was, unlikely aware of.

The views are spectacular, but one wonders why such a treacherous journey made by two men wasn’t enough for a cinematic feature. Two Victorian men making history should have been enough drama and the romance we don’t see is the reality of domesticity.

This should be no spoiler, but the real Glaisher became the founding member of the Meteorological Society in 1850 and the Aeronautical Society of Great Britain in 1866. His co-pilot, Henry Tracey Coxwell, is the hero that this movie has erased but he isn’t the only person. The flight in the film takes place in 1862; Glaisher was already a married man (to Cecilia Louisa Belville in 1843). Cecilia Glaisher was a photographer and artist and they would have three children. (I could not find a record of Coxwell having married.”

It was Coxwell who constructed the balloon used for the 1 September 1862 flight that reached a record height. Glaisher lost consciousness and Coxwell did too, but was able to pull the valve-cord before he did, saving the two men.

Wren is based on the second wife of Jean-Pierre Blanchard. Blanchard did go for spectacles–shooting fireworks from his balloons and even, as in the movie, tossing out dogs with parachutes. He introduced Sophie to the sport and, after his death due to a heart attack in 1809, she continued. Fireworks eventually led to her death in 1819.

I’m not sure what the writers (screenplay by Jack Thorne and story by Thorne and Harper) meant to accomplish by replacing the heroic Coxwell with the flirtatious though competent and guilt-ridden Amelia. Do they want women to feel that even today they need to make a spectacle of themselves in an era when a flash of flesh means much more in view and more easily spread via social media than it did during the Victorian era? That a smart woman still needs to be attractive and dress on the wrong side of tarty?

And still, I felt betrayed. I understand that the trauma Amelia remembers is based on true incident that happened to another person, but why not then go with the real person and the real story? Or why not look at the Blanchards? The need to appeal to a diverse audience is likely the cause of Amelia Wren’s creation and the inclusion of an ethnic Asian actor.

And yet there was a romance and a woman that could have easily been included in Glaisher’s story. The woman that is forgotten here is the woman at home–Cecilia Glaisher, as if domesticity was the enemy of the adventurous man. For family, “The Aeronauts” give us Glaisher’s father (Tom Courtenay) who is suffering from dementia and his mother Ethel (Anne Reid). Glaisher’s fictional friend, John Trew (Himesh Patel) notices a boy who is interested in the flight instead of perhaps showing the children of the real man. Tom Harper’s direction  (BBC’s “War & Peace”) prevent this romance from becoming too sweet and aptly demonstrates peril although I wondered about the lack of safety precautions, breaking the cinematic spell for me.

“The Aeronauts” premiered at the Telluride Film Festival (30 August 2019) and was shown at the Toronto Film Festival.  It was one of the special screenings at AFI Fest (19 November 2019) and opened in the US on 6 December 2019).

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