Printed in The Student, 29 September 2009
Overturning the history of human thought and discrediting the foundations of the church in Victorian England was never going to be a pleasant task. However, Charles Darwin had much more to contend with than fury from the public sphere as their beliefs were shattered by irrefutable biological facts and a lifetime of research. The private story behind the ‘most explosive idea in history’ is almost as turbulent.
A hobbit-like Thomas Huxley, in an unskilled attempt at encouraging Darwin to publish his theories comments: “You’ve killed God.” However, Creation is at pains to portray Darwin as a gentle family man. Paul Bettany’s repertoire of ‘adoring father’ expressions, while meticulously detailing the development of his firstborn, Annie, are cringe-worthy. Jennifer Connelly’s interpretation of pious Emma Darwin is as wooden as a pew, and with lines such as, “Charles is like a barnacle: if you scrape him off his rock, he will die,” her dialogue is similarly stodgy.
Yet despite these defects, Creation is a moving film. Inconsistent performance can’t contend with the tragic, inspirational and gruelling twists of real life. For all of Bettany’s initial strained expressions, his depiction of Darwin’s psychological suffering and hallucinations after Annie’s death are difficult to watch, but this time, for the right reasons. The conflict of interest between his love for his wife, her strong religious beliefs and his own passion for scientific enquiry, particularly when it comes to raising their children, is deftly handled. The very idea of Darwin looking extremely shifty at church through the drone of ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’ is inspired.
As Annie, Martha West is the perfect combination of cute precociousness and foot-stamping indignation. The other children are little more than fluffy-headed extras at story time. However, it is hard not to think that Darwin would have had an inexhaustible bank of bedtime tales. Darwin’s exploits across the world, from landing at Tierra del Fuego to meeting the first orang-utan in the London Zoo are well-shot and engaging diversions from the narrative.
Time-lapse nature sequences are used when Darwin ponders his work: the chick falls from the nest and is fed on by insects until it becomes part of the compost that nourishes the plants, and the trees around it in turn provide shelter for more chicks. However, the law ‘survival of the fittest’ must have seemed particularly cruel to Darwin. He married his first cousin and in their reconciliation, he and Emma admit that when they thought they were creating ‘the perfect child’ they perhaps endowed Annie with a weakness that prematurely ended her life.