REVIEW: The Aeronauts is an adventurous yet historically poetic tale

The Aeronauts is directed by Tom Harper, starring Eddie Redmayne as James Glaisher, Felicity Jones as Amelia Wren and written by Jack Thorne (suggested by Richard Holmes’s Falling Upwards).

The Aeronauts is the story of two adventurers embarking on a record-setting hot-air balloon ascent. The year is 1862, Wolverhampton, England. Ballooning is still regarded more as a romantic stunt than as a scientific endeavor to study, for the first time, the layers of the upper atmosphere. Within minutes of takeoff and after surviving a dangerous thunderstorm, our intrepid aeronauts find themselves high above the clouds. Suddenly and unexpectedly they encounter a cloud of yellow butterflies gaily fluttering around the balloon.  The contrast between the earth-bound humans struggling upward against gravity and the tiny butterflies, blithely indifferent to such impediments — as if mocking gravity — is delicious. The moment even pauses for a reference to Edmund Spencer’s classic lines about butterflies, “The Fate of the Butterflie [sic].”

[See] the race of silver-winged flies

Which doo possesse the empire of the aire,

Betwixt the centred earth and azure skies. . . 

There will be many more moments to greet our aeronauts, many of them hazardous, but none so delightfully suggestive as how tentative is the engagement of man, nature and poetry.

Although The Aeronauts cites a screenplay by one Jack Thorne, the real impetus of the film is Richard Holmes’ classic account of ballooning, Falling Upwards (2013). In my own conversations with this legendary British biographer of figures like Coleridge and Shelley, I quickly learned that Holmes is a passionate devotee of ballooning and has taken many flights himself. That title, Falling Upwards, is a perfect statement of the two gravities that pull upon us poor human creatures — the gravity that keeps us down to earth, and the “tug” of the skies that tempts us to leave it. “Show me a balloon and I’ll show you quite often a tall story,” writes Holmes. Here is a historian who savors both the pull of facts and the flight of fancy.

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Holmes’s narrative and the movie’s storyline chronicle the historic flight of one James Glaisher. He was already a renowned scientist of the upper air when he and his companion, Henry Coxwell, take flight on a voyage that turned out to be a record-setting ascent, reaching an estimated height of almost 35,000 feet, some seven miles above the earth. It was a flight full of wonder and terror. Glaisher and his companion nearly froze and succumbed to asphyxiation in the process, and it was owing only to the dare-devil exploits of his companion, who climbed aloft to release a frozen valve line that the balloon descended back to terra firma. 

 The Aeronauts radically departs from this basic storyline, even if it thankfully preserves the poetry. Here, Glaisher’s companion in the balloon is a woman, the fictitious Amelia Wren, who brings to the adventure a backstory in which she lost her husband during a previous balloon ascent.  Persuaded by Glaisher (here a young man rather than the middle-aged, stolid figure of history), Amelia, like her historical counterpart, Henry Coxwell, proves to be the real hero of this version. As their balloon rises to heights above 25,000 feet and as she and Glaisher begin to succumb to freezing cold and suffocation, she takes to the rigging in a desperate climb up to the top of the balloon to release the frozen valve line. It’s a spectacular sequence as this dauntless woman saves the day against everything a hostile nature can throw at her.

I believe that despite such changes in Holmes’ historical account,  The Aeronauts would gain his favor. In all his works, Holmes recognizes and applauds the women of science and adventure. If he weren’t such a scrupulous historian, he might have supplied such a narrative as this.  Meanwhile, the aerial photography is wondrous, pitting the struggles of the two aeronauts in the tiny gondola basket against the limitless expanses of the darkening blue of the planetary heavens. And never does the movie fail to honor what Richard Holmes calls “the upward possibility” of man’s never flagging urge to fly.

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