This review appeared in the Times Literary Supplement for 2 October 2009
Creation (Various cinemas)
“I can hardly see how anyone ought to wish Christianity to be true”, wrote Charles Darwin in 1876, “for if so, the plain language of the text seems to show that the men who do not believe, and this would include my Father, Brother and almost all my best friends, will be everlastingly punished. And this is a damnable doctrine.” These uncharacteristically forthright words, written shortly before Darwin’s death, are all the more remarkable in that they were faithfully copied out and preserved by his widow, Emma, during the course of collating his personal papers, though she did ask that they be omitted from the published version that appeared in 1887. Whatever pain they may have caused her — a convinced Christian, whose husband’s loss of faith was a source of lasting grief and torment to her — she nevertheless recognized their sincerity and significance, and chose to pass them on to posterity.
Though Darwin’s loss of religious faith was slow, stealthy and (according to him) painless, the version of events we get here, in Jon Amiel’s evolutionist weepy, is of a crisis that threatened to unbalance a mind already destabilized by the death of the Darwins’ daughter, Annie, in 1851. Annie’s ghost, played with disarming solemnity by ten-year-old Martha West in her first screen role, haunts Darwin’s waking thoughts, as well as his elaborately cinematic dreams, in which she cajoles him into finishing his much-delayed book, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection (1859). “What are you so scared of; it’s only a theory”, she says at one point, a question aimed as much at the 20 percent of Britons (and 47 percent of Americans) who continue to reject evolutionary science, as it is at her grieving father. For Creation is not exactly a ghost story, nor is it a straightforward biopic; it is, instead, a loosely historical account of the sad personal circumstances in which the most influential book of the last two hundred years was slowly and painfully completed.
It had been a long wait for all concerned, particularly for Darwin’s scientific allies, to whom he had confided his revolutionary ideas ever since his return from the Beagle voyage in 1836. Thomas Huxley (“Darwin’s bulldog”) — a suitably barking Toby Jones — was the most vociferous and impatient (“you’ve killed God, sir, you’ve killed God”), while Joseph Hooker (Benedict Cumberbatch) urged him to overcome his tiresome psychosomatic disorders and knuckle down to work. Meanwhile, the long-suffering Emma, played with gloomy stoicism by Jennifer Connelly, bore daily witness to her husband’s emotional disintegration as he battled with depression following the death of his daughter, while struggling to finish his book.
Paul Bettany, perfectly cast as the young Charles Darwin (he is also Connelly’s real-life husband), spends much of the film either lying on a couch, slumped at his desk, or visiting his hydrotherapist at Malvern spa (the ever-reliable Bill Patterson), and only comes to life during the sunlit flashbacks, watching Annie turning cartwheels on the beach, or fossicking for beetles during a riverside picnic (“don’t tell me, don’t tell me, it’s . . . Carabus violaceus!”). The riverbank scene contains the film’s most compelling sequence, in which a discussion of the God-given “harmony” of nature is countered by the hidden spectacle of a fledgling sparrow falling from its nest, dying of starvation and being eaten by worms, in a time-lapse visualization of Darwin’s celebrated “entangled bank” passage from the last page of The Origin of Species. “All of nature is a battlefield”, as Joseph Hooker observes, to the displeasure of the sanctimonious Reverend Innes (Jeremy Northam), Emma’s spiritual counsellor and Charles’s sworn enemy. Though there is only a modicum of science in the film, this richly imagined episode is an unusually thoughtful (and successful) attempt at portraying a scientific concept on the screen.
If only more of the film could have been like this, instead of the television melodrama it mostly resembles, complete with clunking, anachronistic dialogue (“Charles, we need to talk”). But even though its scientific content is frustratingly slight, and its emotional register close to histrionic, Creation is nevertheless a brave and serious film, not least for its very un-Hollywood contention that scientific understanding can enrich us emotionally as well as intellectually. Down by the river, as the picnicking disputants sip their tea, the gulf between the pre-Darwinian and post-Darwinian view of the world — in which the extinction of weak offspring, whether a bird, an orang-utan, or a consumptive child, is all part of the pitiless struggle for existence — seems to open up before them in the afternoon haze. “So much beauty for so little purpose”, as Bettany’s Darwin concludes, “yet there is grandeur in this view of life.”