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.