Movie Review: Creation

Last night I had a chance to see Creation, the independent film by British director Jon Amiel that presents an account of the life of Charles Darwin and his struggle to write his great work, On the Origin of Species, while mourning the death of his beloved daughter Annie. The movie is based on Annie’s Box, the biography of Darwin written by his great-great-grandson, Randal Keynes.

The movie opens promisingly, with Darwin’s eldest daughter Annie asking him to tell her a story. He obliges her by describing how Robert FitzRoy, captain of the H.M.S. Beagle, kidnapped four children from the “savages” of Tierra del Fuego and brought them to England to be raised as Christians. On the Beagle‘s second voyage (the one Darwin joined as ship’s naturalist), FitzRoy returned the children to their tribe with the intent of having them act as missionaries, but the outcome wasn’t at all what he had expected. (This is a true story, if you were wondering.)

Back at Down House, Darwin’s home in the English countryside, he’s visited by his friends Joseph Hooker and Thomas Huxley. Both of them are aware of the theory Darwin has been working on for years, and both of them urge him to collect and publish all his research. Huxley, a firebrand agnostic, is gleeful at the prospect of striking a fatal blow against religious orthodoxy, while Hooker is less anti-clerical and motivated more by what he sees as the scientific merit of the idea. Darwin himself is conflicted, recognizing his theory’s potential to undermine religious belief, but far less certain that this would be a good thing. As the movie goes on to show, this is due mainly to the influence of his staunchly Christian wife, Emma.

As the backstory expands, we learn more about why Darwin has delayed publishing his theory for so many years. He’s been grappling with a mysterious illness that renders him an invalid for long periods; his family life is increasingly strained and his wife increasingly distant; but most important, we find out, is the death of Annie. She died at the age of ten, and her absence still hangs like a shadow over the household. Of all Darwin’s children, she was his favorite, and he’s wracked by grief over her passing and tormented by the thought that he was somehow responsible. In repeated flashbacks, we see his affection for her, her budding talent as an amateur naturalist, and her clashes with her mother and the local vicar as she begins to speak up for her own father more passionately than he ever did for himself. Her spirit still haunts Darwin – literally, as she pops up throughout the movie, whether as memory, ghost or hallucination, to converse and at times to argue with him as he puts off writing and agonizes over whether to set pen to paper. Of course, we know how this story ends!

If there’s anything I didn’t like about Creation, it was its tendency to veer into melodrama. The middle third of the movie seemed overwrought to me, in particular an especially silly nightmare sequence where Darwin dreams that his stuffed and pickled lab specimens come alive and attack him. And while Darwin’s imagined conversations with Annie’s ghost were acceptable as a narrative device, it got excessive in some places. There’s more than enough genuine dramatic gold in the historical details of Darwin’s grief over his daughter’s death, his struggling with his loss of faith, and his clashes with his devout wife over whether he was jeopardizing his eternal fate by publishing his theory. And the movie did touch on all those points, but I really don’t think it was necessary to have a scene where Darwin dashes through the grounds of Down House, shouting out to a hallucination of Annie, while his servants look on in horror. The movie also makes very frequent use of flashbacks, and at times I found it hard to tell whether a scene was supposed to be occurring in the present or the past.

That said, there was much to like about the movie as well. It was extremely well cast: Paul Bettany, who plays Charles Darwin, gives a brilliant, deeply human depiction of a man who is tormented, fallible, but bears a deep love for his family and a fierce devotion to the truth. Jennifer Connelly, Bettany’s actual wife, is fully believable as the straitlaced Emma, who loves and fears for her husband but ultimately comes around, to an extent, to his point of view. (“You have made me an accomplice,” she says in one of the movie’s most memorable lines.) Jeremy Northam, who plays the local reverend, serves as a dramatic foil to Darwin in some extremely effective scenes. And Martha West, who plays Annie, is a treasure.

The movie was also gorgeously shot, giving a strong sense of time and place to the story. The scenes of nature, whether in Darwin’s cabin on the Beagle or the forests of the English countryside, were well chosen to complement Darwin’s unfolding ideas and to give a sense of where he got his inspirations. And it was a very smart touch to have Bettany narrate parts of the story by reading actual passages from Origin of Species. Charles Darwin wrote some true poetry, and his words are mesmerizing when spoken aloud.

The last third or so of the movie was especially powerful, with some outstanding scenes that more than made up for the weaker ones earlier on. When Darwin pleads in prayer for Annie’s life, there wasn’t a dry eye in the theater, including mine. And that, I think, is Creation‘s greatest strength: it shows Darwin not as a stuffy, gray-bearded scientist or a Christian-hating polemicist, but as a human being, a father and husband, who’s deeply conflicted about what he’s about to unleash on the world but ultimately must go ahead because of his devotion to the truth. This nuanced, sympathetic portrayal of Charles Darwin the man could be just the kind of thing we need to increase public acceptance of his theory (and if you need any further proof, consider that the Christian reviewers loathed it). If this is a subject that appeals to you, Creation is definitely worth your time to see.

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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, City of Light, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Judas

    Dammit I forgot to tick that box and it lost my comment!

    Anyway, slightly cut down version…

    Good to see Darwin being portrayed as a human being rather than an icon, and always good to have more ammunition against the christians who think that their icons are more believable, despite the fact that none of their ideas have come from anywhere but the need to make money out of idiots like them.

    Good review, I look forward to seeing it.

  • the chaplain

    Thanks for the review. I’ve got to see this movie. If I can ever get out of my front door again (we got more snow in my neighborhood), I may check it out next week.

  • Chroma

    Holy shit, that review is hilariously stupid. Thanks for the link!

  • Demonhype

    Well, that sucks. Nothing in Ohio. That’s what’s so disgusting about this is that a POS like Expelled can open all over, but anything that religious nuts might get even a little butthurt about is always specialized. And impossible to get to unless you live in NY or CA or somewhere that’s not at the edge of nowhere.

    Guess I’ll have to wait for the DVD.

    Though the melodrama sounds annoying, I was thinking that this “devotion to the truth” thing sounds like a much more accurate portrayal of many atheists. In nearly every deconversion story I’ve heard, no one wanted to deconvert or was trying to, but they just couldn’t hold onto fables in the face of reality anymore.

    Unless I’m off my mark on that. But that’s how I saw it.

  • Demonhype

    BTW, anyone get to see Agora yet? That’s the one I’ve been waiting to see. Finally, some portrayal of the true rise of Christianity, in all its violent and intolerant bloody goodness. Too many believers seem to think that all faiths but Christianity were spread at the edge of the sword, and it’s time they were made to face the truth.

    I honestly found it hard to credit the stories I was told as a kid, that Christianity was spread by a miracle because it was so completely and obviously true that anyone who heard the priests talk just automatically kicked off their own cultures and histories and gods and and forefathers to follow Christ (which is why Christianity so miraculously receded when the missionaries were no longer allowed to put their boots on the throats of potential converts?). And also that the Romans went after Christians only because it was so obvious that the True Faith had finally landed and the Romans recognized that and felt threatened. It’s alarming how many people seem to really believe that shit when I had been able to see how BS it was before I was ten.

    I know it’s mostly OT, but I wanted to get that in there. I thought Agora opened already in Europe, but I may be wrong.

  • Katie M


    I’m wondering if Agora is ever going to come to the states. I would be at the theater in a flash if it did, but for now I’m still waiting . . . and waiting . . .

    Creation sounds great-I suppose I’ll have to grow old waiting for THAT to come here too.

  • Jeff Eyges

    Love how they have contact info for the production company, so the Christians can voice their disapproval – ’cause no one should be allowed to see any history they haven’t revised first!

  • MissCherryPi

    When Ebonmuse was reviewing this film, I told him that the CAP Alert guy might object to the evolutionary theory, but he can’t object to the sex scene. Because Paul Bettany and Jennifer Connelly are married. [He objected to a scene in "A Beautiful Mind because although Dr. and Mrs. Nash were married in real life and as characters in the movie, Russel Crowe and Jennifer Connelly are not.]

  • the chaplain

    OMFG! I just checked for theaters where this movie is playing in the Washington, DC/Baltimore/Northern Virginia area. It’s showing at one theater in downtown DC! One lousy theater! In a major metropolitan area with a population of 5.3 million people! That’s outrageous, frustrating, depressing and just downright stupid.

  • Ebonmuse

    Creation does have a fairly limited release, unfortunately – it was only showing at one theater in all of New York City, as well. This is probably what comes of being an indie film with a limited budget, as opposed to a glittery piece of garbage like Expelled that can get advertising and promotion from all the wealthy megachurches.

    I hadn’t even heard of Agora till now, but oh man. I’ve got to see that when it opens around here. :)

  • Jim Sabiston

    Thanks for posting the review! Sounds like an unusually sensitive depiction of Darwin’s life and inner turmoil regarding the publication of his theories. I’d forgotten this movie was being made. I’ll probably have to wait for the dvd, tho. Maybe one of the cable channels will broadcast it eventually (Discovery? BBC?)One can hope.

    I used your link to pop over to the movie review site. Just an amazing example of the depth and utter completeness of the closed mindedness of the reviewer. Particularly interesting that there is no option to comment on the review! Might they be afraid of open debate or discussion on their viewpoints? Very sad.

  • Katie M

    Just thought of this-Creation reminds me of the PBS special “Darwin’s Darkest Hour”, which I thought was excellent. Did anybody else here see that?

  • Caiphen

    The story of Darwin being a caring Father must send shudders through the Creationist ranks. After all, if you believe the fundamentalist BS, he was nothing but a 2nd rate scientist who was morally bankrupt.(eyeroll….followed by a sarcastic laugh).

    How dare Darwin display such an admirable character I’m sure they must contemplate.

  • lpetrich

    I checked on Agora (Wikipedia article), and it’s supposed to be released country by country: Agora (2009) – Release dates It’s released or to be released in Spain, Portugal, Lebanon, France, Romania, Greece, Kuwait, Slovenia, Russia, Singapore, Sweden, Germany, Israel, and Argentina.

    It was released October 9 last year in Spain. From Wikipedia, “Agora was Spain’s highest grossing film of 2009, earning over $10.3 million within four days of its release on October 9. The film has grossed over $32.3 million (€ 21.4 million) at December 1.”

  • Katie M

    So . . . not here? :(

  • Modusoperandi

    I like how the review, after dropping the typical “no transitional fossils” a Darwin quotemine, accuses the movie of using straw man, “closed-minded, cruel” Christians. Then it calls Darwin a racist (which is technically true by modern standards. Of course, by modern standards pretty much everyone back then was racist. It takes chutzpah to call an abolutionist racist. Chutzpah and a big helping of arguing in bad faith, that is). Then it calls his wife a not-True Christian.

  • Bo McDaniel

    I enjoyed the movie, thought it well done and revealing in the struggle between “Creation”, it’s highest form of creation – man, and the 300 pound gorilla (figuratively speaking) in the room, that being “… if creation, I must be created, if created who or what created me?” Or ‘gods’ forbid (little ‘g’), that there may be a ‘God’(capital ‘G’). Personally, I can not scientifically discover by my own observations with the limited time I have on this earth and logic, much less my human abilities, whether or not evolution is true nor God is true. Unless, I become by default the ‘god’ of my universe, this does not matter to either reality, one being true the other necessarily false. And as the movie subtly depicts, if we evolve as the fortunate “Favored” races in the struggle for life (a reference to Darwin’s complete title of Origins … conspicuously omitted in any reference in the movie) then one is convicted deeply when they loose a loved one such as Darwin’s daughter who by logical conclusion, must not have been “favored” to survive ‘extinction’ in the ‘struggle for life’. To me, the poignant truth in this movie deals with the “favored” status of those we love, and hopefully we are loved by. Otherwise, in the ‘struggle for life’, love has no merit, no meaning, no restraint, no purpose, no life sustaining force. If, man is simply a higher evolved ‘beast’ vs. the other ‘beasts’, what affection’ I may have need not be true or ‘favored’ love, nor should that lack restrain me from fulfilling my affection for a fellow creature, even a lovable ‘beast’ that I could call my soul mate as portrayed by the lovely beast the orangutan depicted in the movie. I doubt the average viewer will appreciate the depth of the real questions at play in this movie, and thus, do not expect mass interest. But for those serious about true reality, I recommend this work to them. For all there are eternal options and consequences every creature must face. As a uniquely created creature living an ephemeral reality, it is my faith, my belief that I should choose wisely, trusting and hoping my choice is indeed “favored”. I wonder what most ‘omniscient ephemera’ are placing their eternal confidence in regarding this ‘struggle for life’? . . . Because it matters eternally.

  • goldifishlaser

    Atlanta gets its own release on Feb 19th. Check the site to see if your nearby city is releasing late.

  • Katie M

    Seems that the nearest city where this movie will be is Washington D.C., which I believe took at least four hours to get to when I went last summer. I think I’ll just wait for the DVD :(

  • Katie M

    I finally saw it today. Who would’ve thought that a movie about Charles Darwin could make you cry?