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A worthy story, but it fails to evolve on screen

2 out of 4 stars



  • Directed by Jon Amiel
  • Written by John Collee
  • Starring Paul Bettany and Jennifer Connolly
  • Classification: PG
  • Two Stars

The attempt to represent genius in traditional Hollywood films often leads to directorial overkill, especially montages of flurried activity set to intense orchestral music that make inspiration resemble a seizure. In the case of Charles Darwin, you might hope for something more subtle. The scientist who demoted humans from fallen gods to risen apes wasn't some inspired romantic, but an amiable Victorian English country gentleman with a long, happy marriage and many children.

Unfortunately, Creation, the new film by Jon Amiel ( Copycat, The Core, The Singing Detective mini-series) is as angst-filled as if it were Amadeus and Lust for Life rolled into one. For Darwin, apparently, the process of writing On the Origin of Species seems to have involved hallucinations, ghosts and many water droplets falling in slow motion.

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Some of this is historically legitimate. American psychiatrist Ralph Colp Jr., in books and articles, has argued that Darwin's ongoing depressive illnesses were linked to his anxiety about his secular perspective and that he delayed publishing On the Origin of Species for 20 years. But Colp also accepts that Darwin's illness may also have been caused by more obvious causes: a parasitic bug bite in South America that led to a debilitating, life-long disease.

The perspective of Creation is based on the book Annie's Box (2001), by Darwin's great-great-grandson, Randal Keynes, which focused on how Darwin's thinking was affected by the death of his 10-year-old daughter. Director Amiel and screenwriter John Collee ( Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, in which Paul Bettany played a Darwin-inspired scientist), have turned this subject into a psychodrama with distinct suggestions of demonic possession.

As the movie starts, Darwin (Bettany, looking reasonably Darwin-like in mutton chops and a bald cap) is approaching 50 and in a funk. Distracted and inattentive to both work and family, he is suffering over the death of his favourite child, Annie, at the age of 10. In flashbacks, we see his close bond with the precocious Annie (Martha West), who shared his love of nature. The child's death has split the marriage: Charles has lost his faith while Emma (Jennifer Connelly) clings more closely to religion and the bromides of the local parson, Reverend Innes (Jeremy Northam).

Meanwhile, scientific colleagues Thomas Huxley (Toby Jones) and Joseph Hooker (Benedict Cumberbatch) urge Darwin to finish his great book and "kill God" for once and for all. Darwin seeks comfort in water treatments in his home-made hydraulics centre, pummelling his body with barrels of water dropped from on high. In his study at night, he talks to his dead daughter. Bugs crawl around the room. Fetuses in jars seem to twitch and cry out. Desperately, he goes on a redemptive journey, seeking out the place where he took Annie for her final treatments, in an attempt to alleviate his guilt.

Amiel labours to make Darwin's chronic procrastination exciting. Occasionally, he employs time-lapse effects: At a family picnic, Darwin watches a mouse run into the grass, which evokes an elaborate vision of death, maggots, a baby bird, more death. Time jumps this way and that as hallucinations and flashbacks become intermingled.

None of this can disguise the fact that Creation is, ultimately, a static affair. Bettany convinces us that Darwin was a good but nonetheless tiresome man with his eye-rolling bouts of dread and horror-movie fantasies. Worse is Connelly's Emma, portrayed as a stiff, reproving bore. Here, the script's poetic licence seems to detract from the biographical facts: Emma Darwin, who was Charles's first cousin and scion of the wealthy Wedgwood family, was a talented pianist who spoke several languages. In his book, Keynes insisted there was never a hint of estrangement between the couple, despite their difference on religion.

Creation is ultimately disappointing for the opportunity that has been missed. The film's one truly captivating sequence shows Darwin visiting a young orangutan, Jenny, in a London zoo in 1838. (It was a second Jenny that Queen Victoria called "frightful and painfully and disagreeably human.") The sequence, accompanied by Bettany's voiceover as he tells the story to Annie, is magical. The obvious parallels between the young ape and human children aided Darwin's understanding about the continuum between animals' social instincts and human morality. Nothing else in Creation comes close to capturing "the grandeur in this view of life" that Darwin celebrated.

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