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Paul Bettany as Charles Darwin in a scene from Creation.
Paul Bettany as Charles Darwin in a scene from Creation.

Inside the heart of a scientist Add to ...

Creation , the film about Charles Darwin that opens the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival Thursday, marks a significant anniversary. Darwin was born 200 years ago this year, and it has been 150 years since the publication of On the Origin of Species , a revolutionary book that placed mankind more as risen apes than fallen angels and fundamentally redefined our world view. Though Darwin's argument is still challenged by some religious groups, his theory is now commonplace scientific fact. In England, where Creation was made, Darwin's as familiar as the face on the back of a £10 note.

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What it took to reveal the movie potential in Darwin's story was something painfully intimate; a piece of paper, found in the naturalist's daughter's writing box just nine years ago. The discoverer was British conservationist and author Randal Keynes, Darwin's great-great-grandson, who had heard stories from his grandmother about visiting Darwin's house as a child. The child's box belonged to Anne; Darwin's second of 10 children and eldest daughter, who died at the age of 10. In the box, along with her writing equipment, embroidery and letters, Keynes found a piece of paper.

Talking on the phone from his London home, Keynes, 61, recalls that moment: "It was a sheet of foolscap, folded several times, which, when I opened it, had writing that was unmistakably Darwin's, with detailed notes on his daughter's medical treatment in the two months before she died. Immediately, I felt there was something very unusual about this, in a busy Victorian scientist writing these detailed notes about nursing his child."

A week after her death, Darwin wrote a short essay (Annie: A Memorial can be read at Darwin Online) describing what she had meant to him, and then, according to family memoirs, spoke of her only twice again in his lifetime. Keynes (who is also related to the economist John Maynard Keynes) began reading more of the family letters and memoirs of Darwin's adult children and came to believe that Annie's death had a deep influence on Darwin's thinking and his efforts to understand what he once called, in a private letter, the "clumsy, wasteful, blundering low and horridly cruel works of nature."

In writing his best-selling 2001 book, Annie's Box (subtitled CharlesDarwin, His Daughter, and Human Evolution ); Keynes acknowledges he wanted to refute those who portrayed his great-great-grandfather as an apologist for selfishness and cruelty. On the contrary, says Keynes, Darwin believed "social animals are hard-wired to look after each other."

Screenwriter John Collee ( Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World ) read the book and brought it to the attention of his friend, Jon Amiel, who graduated from theatre to directing a half-dozen episodes of the acclaimed series The Singing Detective in the mid-eighties and then to Hollywood thrillers ( Entrapment , The Core ).

For Amiel, reached at his Los Angeles home, the book was a revelation: "I had always thought of Darwin like one of those heads on Mount Rushmore, a massive figure with his beetling brow and mighty beard. Instead, I discovered a vibrant, warm man, who doted on his wife and children."

He and Collee took the idea of adapting Annie's Box to producer Jeremy Thomas ( The Last Emperor ), who agreed to option Keynes's book for a film. At that point, says Amiel, the movie suddenly became both more ambitious and more intimate.

"My biggest challenge, to be honest, was to be not boring. 'Biopic' and 'drama documentary' are terms I loathe and despise," Amiel explains. "One of the major challenges, honestly, was to find any kind of dramatic shape at all. Darwin did his travelling in his 20s and spent the rest of his life as a country gent, spending years studying earthworms and barnacles. He was a scientist, and there was a lot of trudgery and drudgery and an immense amount of repetition in his work."

The script focuses on a short period of Darwin's life in the 1850s, between the death of his daughter and the publication of On the Origin of Species in 1859. The film's title, says Amiel, is designed to "tweak" the Creationists (believers in the literal Biblical account of the formation of the species) but also to refer to a man in the creative throes.

That entailed taking some creative licence with Keynes's book. There are scenes, for example, in which we see a distraught Darwin communing with the ghost of his dead daughter. "We took some imaginative leaps," acknowledges Amiel. "But Randal Keynes was totally supportive of the idea of using Annie as a sort of interlocutor in the film. If it isn't true to the letter, it's true to the spirit of his book."

For Amiel, the film is also about the interconnectedness of living things, especially people who share a household. In the film, Charles and his wife Emma are played by real-life married couple Paul Bettany and Jennifer Connelly. Bettany had played a Darwin-like naturalist in Master and Commander , and Connelly had won her Oscar as the wife of a troubled genius opposite Russell Crowe in the 2001 movie A Beautiful Mind , the movie where she met Bettany.

"They're both very courageous actors and were willing to explore difficult areas. When Emma and Darwin are fighting, things sometimes got quite raw between them," says Amiel. "You could only get that from a couple who really trusted each other."

Bettany and Connelly also rehearsed for 12 days with the five untrained actors who play the Darwin children in the film.

"I think we've all had the experience of watching a film or television show with a family dinner-table scene and felt the ineluctable sensation that this group of people are meeting each other for the very first time. It's difficult to fake familiarity. There can be a great deal more intimacy in the way that people who know each other snap their fingers and ask someone to pass the salt than you can ever show having actors staring into each other's eyes."

Amiel says he is particularly proud of the authenticity of Bettany's performance.

"First, he's English, and he had exactly the right physicality - tall, gangly, sandy-haired, with a high forehead. Most important, Paul is really, really intelligent and capable of inhabiting Darwin's rhythms of speech and thought. You could give a dumb actor the best script in the world and have him learn it by heart, but he'll still sound dumb."

And how exactly did Amiel know what Darwin's speech rhythms sounded like? He handles the question easily, both in general and specific terms.

"Scientists tend to speak in ways that reflect their mental processes. They don't speak in the round oratorical rhythms of an actor. They tend to speak in quick, blurting runs of thought with pauses in between. We also know that Darwin was a shy man, and in moments of excitement, he would stammer.

"When actors show anger, they get more resonant and loud. When shy people get angry, they become stiff because they're disturbed by these emotions. These were areas that Paul researched and worked out in extraordinary detail."

Amiel admits he's no scientist, but there's a detachment required in his work. As a director, he says, his job was to be the "objective deputy" for his actors. He uses the analogy of a person guiding a boat, while the actor is like a diver, taking the deep exploratory journey to the uncharted depths.

"The actor's going down to the bottom of the ocean exploring these psychic cracks. My job is to make sure the line doesn't get tangled and that he's getting enough air. And occasionally to warn him if I see the sharks coming."

Follow on Twitter: @liamlacey

 

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