James Glaisher (Eddie Redmayne) was a scientist and an aspiring meteorologist in a time when that field did not yet exist (1862, to be precise). So, he decided to invent it. To do that, he tapped balloon pilot Amelia Wren (Felicity Jones) (actually a balloon widow with a tragic backstory) to ascend toward the heavens, or at least beyond the clouds, in a historic balloon flight higher than any other.
Up they go, to dangerous heights. In the pursuit of science, Glaisher urges them higher still. With her husband’s death still fresh in her mind (and his blood perhaps still on her hands), Amelia prefers caution. Still, when they inevitably meet up with trouble, it is she who will save them both while he is basically just cargo, a useless man looking at his instruments.
It’s a dizzying and inspiring story, full of rah-rah, girls can do anything chutzpah that is of course completely fabricated. James Glaisher is in fact a real-life scientist, but the man who took him up in his balloon and ultimately saved his life was pioneer Henry Coxwell, who got written out of the story in order for these two The Theory of Everything costars to reunite. In truth, it is Amelia and not James who is the colour in the story. She is the one we naturally gravitate to. Would the story be as compelling without her?
Confusingly, IMDB lists the character as a Ms. Wren while the film itself seems to prefer Rennes. I suppose it doesn’t matter since she’s fictional, and perhaps it’s nearly fitting since Amelia is not just a fearless balloon pilot but a bit of a showgirl as well. Crowds have paid for the privilege of watching their launch, which funds their research, and she understands the value of putting on a bit of a show – which of course her stodgy scientist partner doesn’t get. He’s more into his pigeons, which he plans to throw from the balloon at different heights. The pigeons have no idea what’s in store for them.
The balloon ultimately reaches about 37 000 feet, which is roughly the cruising height of a jumbo jet. Up there, the air is cold, and there is less and less oxygen. Glaisher is the immediate victim, having brought along many thermometers but no warm clothes. For “authenticity,” director Tom Harper had Jones and Redmayne actually filming about 2000 feet in the air, which he captured via helicopter. In the olden days, an air balloon worked by 2 mechanisms. The basket was weighted with sandbags; to go higher, you let out some sand. To go lower, you let out some air. Today we have hot air balloons, which use fire to heat the air, and of course hot air rises. Allowing the air to cool means you drift down. I got to go up in a hot air balloon once. I am not overly fond of heights, or more specifically, of falling to my death from one, so I worried a lot about what the ascent would be like, and if I’d feel sick, or scared, and if the basket would bounce around, or if I’d have to hold on for dear life. In fact, the ascent was smooth, so utterly without event that I forgot to be scared at all and just completely enjoyed the ride. But then you have to get back down. That’s the part I’d failed to worry about, or even picture. And of course, that’s the bumpy part because the basket doesn’t just touch down gracefully, kissing the earth. It smacks it, hard, then jumps back up, then smacks down again, the basket getting drawn along jaggedly, thumping away while you assume the ‘crash’ position, huddled on its bottom, trying not to fall out.
There was something very satisfying about the movie, which is told within the framework of their historic 90 minute flight, with flashbacks telling the story of how they came to dance among the clouds together. Even from the sky, the film has a very strong sense of time and place. I was struck by the injustice of James presenting his findings to the Royal Society alone, because Amelia’s being female disqualified her from even being on the property. Of course since she never actually existed, the point is kind of moot, but their pairing does make for a very compelling story, and The Aeronauts are not exactly the first to embellish history in the service of better storytelling.