If only the makers of Creation had the courage of conviction of their subject, Charles Darwin.
Perhaps in the hands of different filmmakers the science of discovery and the arduous process Darwin took in writing his world-changing On the Origin of Species might have provided rich enough subject matter for a film to be both educationally and artistically challenging.
Instead, director Jon Amiel and screenwriter John Collee too often turn Darwin's quest into a melodrama filled with overdone anguish, shocking images, and hallucinations. At times while watching Creation, one imagines an alternate title — Scientist on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.
Despite its limitations, Creation is not without value — particularly in the DVD version released last week (Lionsgate, $27.98). It includes special features that elaborate upon crucial themes and ideas raised in the movie.
Amiel and Collee center their story on the conflict between Darwin (played by Paul Bettany) and his ideas with the religious beliefs held by his devout wife Emma (Jennifer Connelly, who is married to Bettany in real life). That emphasis is the result of the screenplay being based on the book Annie's Box, which was written by Darwin's great-great-grandson Randal Keynes, who relied upon family letters and diaries.
Such an emphasis is not the main problem with Creation, because the disagreement between husband and wife was both historically accurate and a potentially potent source of drama. They were a loving couple who had 10 children during a marriage that lasted 45 years (ending only with Charles Darwin's death), yet a gulf arose between them. For Darwin, the challenge of writing On the Origins of Species — already a difficult matter since he was abundantly aware that his findings would offer a powerful challenge to accepted theocratic ideas about God and humanity — becomes even greater because of his wife's opposition to them.
But Creation does more than turn this great scientific-philosophical-religious debate into a family feud. To emphasize the great scientist's inner turmoil, the film presents the act of writing as something traumatic, filled with anguish, sweating, physical tremors, and shakes. Scenes bounce between reality and dream and between Darwin's tortured presence and a happier past. Many of these scenes involve the couple's 10-year-old daughter Annie, whose death from childhood tuberculosis added another aspect of torment to Darwin's wounded psyche.
We learn in flashbacks that Annie (played by Martha West, the daughter of actor Dominic West) had been her father's favorite, a precociously perceptive child who provided the scientist with an inquisitive listener to his ideas. But these scenes often shift into present-day dreams and nightmares in which Annie reappears. Sometimes it's hard to discern whether we're watching a flashback or one of Darwin's hallucinations.
All of this psycho-hoo-hah isn't necessary at all, as Amiel and Collee provide an abundant amount of powerful and important stuff without it. To be fair, Amiel offers a reasonable, but ultimately inadequate, explanation for his directorial choices in his erudite and informative audio commentary.
The cast and look of Creation is first-rate. We shouldn't blame Bettany for his character's emotional excesses (I assume he was following his director's instructions), though his take on Darwin offers an interesting contrast to his cooler performance as another 19th-century British scientist, a doctor who was fascinated with the rare species found on the Galapagos Islands, in Peter Weir's Master and Commander. Connelly delivers a measured and thoughtful performance in a difficult role as a loving wife and mother who fears that her husband's views might keep him out of heaven.
Benedict Cumberbatch and Toby Jones (as Darwin's supporters Joseph Hooker and Thomas Huxley) and Jeremy Northam (as the local minister and Darwin family friend who defends a creationist viewpoint) lend their weight to the different sides of the argument.
Amiel and his cinematographer, Jess Hall, present an authentic looking mid-19th century England, shooting Creation in various English locales, including the Darwin family home, Down House, in Kent.
But it's the special features that make one appreciate even more what Darwin accomplished. A 23-minute making-of documentary, The Battle for Charles Darwin, not only includes interviews with the leading cast and crew members, but with Darwin ancestors as well.
Debating Darwin, a three-part documentary, intersperses excerpts from the movie with scientists discussing and debating Darwin's findings and the impact of his work on future scientific discoveries. From my perspective, this section errs by trying too hard to be “fair and balanced.”
Digging Deeper Into Darwin is composed of seven featurettes that also merge scenes from Creation with comments about them by Darwin scholar Nick Spencer, author of the book Darwin and God.
Finally, there's Pollard on Film, a short (and positive) program about Creation featuring Nick Pollard, a prominent Christian broadcaster and speaker who often explores the relationship between Christianity and popular culture.