Creation (review)

Man, Evolving

“You’ve killed God, sir!” and “Good riddance to the old bugger!” So say Thomas Huxley and Joseph Hooker, scientist pals of Charles Darwin, as Creation opens and they’re trying to convince the naturalist to finally get down on paper his thoughts on biological inheritance, which remove the need for supernatural forces from the equation. But Darwin is hesitating, in fact, for precisely the reason they’re egging him on: he fears for what his theory will mean for those — such as his beloved wife — who rely on religious faith…
A century and a half after Darwin did finally heed his friends and write his book, God is still flourishing, so perhaps Darwin needn’t have worried. That God continues to hold his own in the face of the revolution in our understanding of the natural world Darwin’s work ignited explains, perhaps, why there hasn’t been a movie like Creation before now. Charles Darwin is arguably one of the most important philosophical parents of our culture today, and yet we’ve told no stories about him until now.

And this gentle movie — it’s downright unassuming, considering the impact the man had — is most certainly about Darwin the man, and by extrapolation about science as a human endeavor, as noble and contradictory and sometimes as wrenching a thing as making great art or journeying to unknown lands. There is nothing in the least “heroic” about Paul Bettany’s (Legion, Inkheart) half sensitive, half tetchy portrayal of a man at odds with himself, with his intellect, and with the brutalities and unfairnesses of life… and there’s nothing in the least portentous in how director Jon Amiel (The Core, Entrapment) presents it all to us. This is not a tale of us looking back in awe at The Great Man, full of the breathtaking knowledge of his tremendous scholarly feat (which is perhaps a tad ironic, since it’s based on the book Annie’s Box, by Darwin’s great-great grandson Randal Keynes [Amazon U.S.] [Amazon Canada] [Amazon U.K.]). The only things looming over this Darwin are his own fear, worry, and reluctance.

John Collee’s (Happy Feet, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World) script moves fluidly back and forth across a decade of Darwin’s life as a young naturalist, husband, and father. He’s already been to the Galapagos, where he hoarded observations and made notes and collected specimens, but he hasn’t yet begun to organize his notions on what he’s seen and studied. He is held back by, on the one hand, overwhelming grief over the death of his eldest daughter, Annie (Martha West, daughter of actor Dominic West, making her screen debut), who died aged 10; his heartache seems to exacerbate the myriad (and to this day undiagnosed) health complaints Darwin himself suffers from, which often incapacitate him. (The film appears to suggest that at least some of Darwin’s problems might have been a result of chronic depression… or perhaps that’s just how mopey melancholy with occasional physical upset inevitably manifests itself onscreen.) Annie appears to Darwin at times — not in any supernatural way, of course, just in the way that loved ones linger in our memories after their deaths, and how carrying on conversations with them doesn’t seem at all odd — and she, a spirited young scientist herself, eventually, softly, pushes him toward his work.

And then there’s Darwin’s wife, Emma (Bettany’s real-life wife, Jennifer Connelly: 9, The Day the Earth Stood Still), who is a devout Christian who fears for her husband’s soul as a result of his “God-killing” work. The couple is already somewhat estranged since Annie’s death, and he fears to upset her even more… and she already believes that he is “at war with God.”

But — and this is the quiet, lovely, tough core of Creation — fact is fact, and wishing it away or pretending it doesn’t exist is pointless. This is a movie about what it means to be a scientist: you observe the world and you explain how the pieces fit together. Sometimes the conclusions aren’t pleasant, but that doesn’t make those conclusions untrue, or unworthy of further investigation and confirmation or — as could have been the case with Darwin’s ideas! — refutation.

And it never means that scientists don’t care about the impact of their work. This Darwin is a man to whom love and honor continue to matter a great deal. Even after he’s killed God.

Watch Creation online using LOVEFiLM‘s streaming service.

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