Charles Darwin is applauded for arriving at the biggest single idea in the history of humankind, the same one that nearly killed him. Directed by Jon Amiel, the Toronto Film Festival opener celebrates the bi-centenary of Darwin's birth. 'Creation' tells the story of how the upshot of his theories of evolution caused him to procrastinate the completion of his now notorious ‘On the Origin of the Species – By means of Natural Selection’. Darwin (Bettany) knew that if his theories were correct, the Old Testament was wrong.
An extreme point of view in 19th century England, never mind his own home and his work became one of the most controversial books ever written. He feared further alienating his devout Unitarian wife Emma (Connelly) who, along with him, was still grieving the tragic death of their eldest child, Annie (ably performed by Dominic West’s daughter Martha). Following her death, the developing agnostic turned to science while Emma turned to religion but his new theory threatened to take away the source of her solace. Fellow scientists however put pressure on him to finish the book. And the rest, as they say, is history.
From the opening credits the film has a Sunday afternoon BBC TV look thanks to modestly scaled period trappings but the strong themes and performances ensure that it packs a harder punch. The second subtext of the harrowing loss of their child is a clever device through which to analyse Evolutionism versus Creationism and other psychological issues such as these and their links to religion, death, suffering and human nature.
It was disappointing that we saw so little of the public Darwin, his Beagle travels to the Galapagos islands 20 years previous, animal explorations and scientific studies. However, that loss was rewarded with an intensely personal account of the man, father and husband plus the implication of his theories in his daily life. Based on the book by Darwin descendant, Randal Keynes, 'Annie's Box', the film shows how Darwin’s research began with the birth of his beloved Annie, which inspired him to catalogue information about human development, which he kept in this special box. In the years that followed, the same box was home to the original manuscript for his book.
Amiel’s drama also focuses on the love lost between her parents following Annie’s death. While bordering on tearjerker territory, ‘Creation’s emotional reactions are not cheaply won. Although a little less attention by Amiel and writer John Collee to Darwin's physical ailments and a little more on his theory development would have been welcome. Those scenes dragged the film to an unbelievably slow pace, depriving the viewer of emotional investment in Darwin's plight. However, there are a number of visually appealing set pieces dispersed throughout, gathering pace towards the later and more engaging half of the film, when Darwin comes to terms with his grief, work and marriage.
Bettany gives the performance of his career, with an interesting portrayal of mental breakdown and grief. There’s a natural chemistry between him and his on and off-screen wife, rarely the case when real-life couples co-star. The film flits forwards and backwards in time from the early to mid-1800s with little more than a receding hair line and a few wrinkles to differentiate time periods, yet it all seems to hang together on the strong performances. Jones is great as the pushy, obsessed scientist, Huxley, forcing Darwin’s reluctant pen to paper.
As daring as his life’s work and theories are, Darwin’s personal life also makes for interesting viewing.