In looking back at 2019, The Aeronauts was definitely one of my movie (not) going regrets. While I missed the LFF premiere and subsequent limited theatrical run, I was able to take full advantage of my Amazon Prime membership and catch up.
Altogether, while I had problems with some of the story decisions, thanks to some solid lead performances and awesome and evocative photography, this is a film worth looking at, especially if you are into period pieces.
A Real Life Adventure
Before I leap into my own thoughts – a little background.
The year is 1862, meteorologist James Glaisher (portrayed by Eddie Redmayne in the film) and his co-pilot, aeronaut Henry Coxwell ventured to the heavens to gather temperature and humidity readings of Earth’s upper atmosphere. What they managed to do is to break the world record for altitude of the day.
The Aeronauts is (of course) a fictionalized accounting of this fateful flight, with a few twists added for dramatic effect.
Gender Swap – But Why?
I have long come to terms with the notion that in an “inspired by true events” cinematic world, one must still maintain a degree of suspension of disbelief – it is the art of cinema, after all. That said, the gender swap in The Aeronauts (replacing the real Coxwell with the fictional Amelia Wren, portrayed by Felicity Jones) was baffling. Why, I asked myself. I can easily imagine a film executive, sitting in a posh office somewhere, excited at the prospect of reuniting Jones and her Theory of Everything co-star.
While it sounds good on paper, the final execution felt a bit muddled. Was the objective to create some romantic tension/interest? Was it an effort to inject some contemporary sensibilities (girls rock!) to draw in a modern audience? As I internally debated these questions, it would appear that by all accounts, the latter was a primary driver. My tacit research revealed that in addition to borrowing some characteristics from Coxwell, the Amelia Wren character was also an inspired composite of two pioneering 19th century women – French aeronaut Sophie Blanchard and British balloonist Margaret Graham.
Now I am all for creative license, when it is well executed and serves the story. Here, it did not feel authentic or organic. As a viewer, I was a little confused about how to read their relationship. Ultimately, I felt that while the aims of the gender swap were noble, it did not add a whole lot to the narrative. Which is a shame really, because I did not have a problem with the performances. And honestly, knowing a little more of what I now know about Blanchard and Graham respectively, I would not mind seeing a film about these real-life trailblazers.
On the Positive Side
While the above left me wanting, one thing not in doubt – the visuals are absolutely stunning. Through some wonderful cinematography and well-designed CG, The Aeronauts made for a pretty cool and immersive experience. My home screen is serviceably large, but I can only imagine what this looked like projected in a proper movie theatre. Reassuringly, I am not alone in my assertion. It sounds like the producers also had that immersion in mind when they were working on the film. According to Vanity Fair, initial plans to release the film on IMAX screens were scrapped in favor of catering to a (perceptually wider) streaming audience. This news a bit disappointing since the film was clearly designed in a way which speaks to the spectacle and magic that watching a film on the “big screen” still holds.
But maybe they have a point. By directly depositing a film inside consumers’ homes, there is an untapped opportunity to capture an audience which may not have been immediately drawn to see The Aeronauts in their local cinema.
Either way, I suggest adding it to your Amazon Prime watchlist, if for no other reason than to view the stunning cinematography and visual effects.