Deconstructing Darwin

Those who are surprised that a movie about Charles Darwin’s struggle to complete On the Origin of the Species raised controversy in the U.S. haven’t spent much time following the mundanity of the culture wars.  In this country, we’ve created entire industries based on the tit for tat public battles while often leaving the heart of the issues we argue, which deserve our full attention, unexamined.  Just a couple years after a bitter Republican presidential primary battle that had potential candidates raise their hands during a debate if they believed in intelligent design, it’s no wonder Creation had trouble finding a U.S. distributor.  But before you pan it because of your creationist views, or buy a block of tickets because you favor evolution, set aside your ideology and let director Jon Amiel introduce you to Charles Darwin, not the bearded scientist, but the young, grieving father.

Creation is based on the book Annie’s Box, written by Darwin’s great-great-grandson, Randal Keynes.  It is an unusual but intriguing approach to biography.  Rather than follow the usual path and tell a few anecdotes from the famous scientist’s childhood, then skip ahead to his great accomplishments, Keynes chose to focus on Darwin’s young adulthood through the letters, journals, and photographs of his family.  Director Jon Amiel said that when he was first approached about directing the book’s film adaptation, he wasn’t interested. “I don’t like biopics,” he said, “chronology is not plot, and reverential drama documentaries make saints out of people – how boring are saints?”  But when he read the book, he discovered a man he grew to like and deeply love.  The film introduces Darwin as a family man, a father, a husband, and a man wrestling with the incredible emotional turmoil over the loss of his child, and with the implications of his own ideas.  It was someone he never knew existed, Amiel said, and that story was worth telling.

Creation opens with Annie (Martha West), Darwin’s beloved daughter, sitting for a portrait.  She asks Darwin (Paul Bettany) to “Tell me a story about everything.”  He launches into a story from his journey on the H.M.S. Beagle to Tierra del Fuego.  From that point on, the film traces Darwin not as he develops his theories, though that is certainly a strong thread in the plot, but as he grieves for Annie after her death from scarlet fever.  A story effectively told out of order, the film uses the device of a phantom Annie, visible only to Darwin, to delve into his psyche: the grief and illness that plagued Darwin as he struggled to come to terms with his failing faith, his controversial theories, and his attempts to reconcile with his deeply religious wife, Emma (Jennifer Connelly), both for his evolutionary views and the circumstances of Annie’s death.

As a film, it’s a bit uneven.  The cinematography is excellent with occasional glimpses of something brilliant.  Bettany takes a role that would be easy to overact and evokes sympathy and pathos through subtlety instead.  His interaction with real life wife Connelly is heartbreaking as they journey through their suffering and estrangement, and their performances give the story an added depth that provides it with the authenticity it needs to carry the viewer through its journey.  Bettany lends his character both strength and vulnerability, especially when haunted by visions due to treatment for his severe stomach illness and when being bullied by Thomas Huxley (Toby Jones) about publishing his book.  Newcomer Martha West (daughter of actor Dominic West) shines as Darwin’s doomed daughter Annie, and the bond the two actors forged in rehearsal plays beautifully on screen.

The balance between the story of Darwin’s family and his scientific journey is where the film struggles.  Compared with the drama of losing a child who is a soul mate and the despair of the widening gulf between husband and wife, father and surviving children makes much more compelling cinema than writing a book, even if that process is consumed by a crisis of faith and drives a wedge between Charles and Emma.  Even Amiel seems to acknowledge this imbalance, and the sequences in which Darwin discovers and explains his theories are cut oddly with audio overlapping in one scene to the point that it’s nearly impossible to follow the dialogue.  The focus of this film is not the theory, but the anguish it caused its creator.

Amiel says that he did not set out to make a polemic film to “poke creationists in the eye.”  His vision was to make a film true to the spirit of Darwin himself, who hated controversy and confrontation to the point that it made him physically ill.  To offer Darwin’s opposition a fair hearing, Amiel says they intentionally cast Jeremy Northam, England’s famous, handsome leading man as Reverend Innes, Darwin’s parish priest, in an attempt to “prop up the role of the Church of England” to be, as Darwin describes in the film, a bark that carries society, “an improbable bark, I grant you, but at least it floats.”  However, the film never allows Innes to be anything more than a straw man, no matter how handsome he may be.  Innes offers weak, illogical arguments in response to Darwin’s honest questions about the problem of evil in the created order, and he later makes Darwin’s beloved Annie kneel in rock salt for insisting on the existence of dinosaurs.  He is an opponent who is easy if not to hate, to pity as a scared ignoramus.  In that effort, Creation falls short of the spirit of Darwin who, according to Keynes, respected others religious’ views; though it isn’t hard to imagine that Darwin ran into equally empty arguments against his own.

This film will offend people, probably on both sides of the debate.  Proponents of intelligent design may dismiss the film for obvious reasons and as Amiel remarked, “staunch darwinites are going to be offended because we present him as an extremely fragile and vulnerable man at times, this great bastion of rational thought as a man who goes through some extremely difficult, tormented irrational passages.”  Regardless, extremists on both sides should take the time to see this film.  In it, Bettany introduces a Darwin largely unknown to modern society, a real man with a family, doubts, and tenderness.  The best sequence of the film is haunting, the scene when Darwin first meets an orangutan named Jenny at the London Zoo.  Bettany is a skilled improvisational actor, and upon meeting the ape cast to play Jenny, Amiel realized that she would take to him immediately, so he chose to film their first meeting.  It was a brilliant decision.  The sequence, shot and cut so that it plays like an island of peaceful beauty in a sea of dark doubt, is something like a shadow of Eden, which if he didn’t believe in, Darwin likely respected.

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Lindsay Stallones

Lindsay teaches Advanced Placement history and political science in a Christian high school. She graduated from Biola University summa cum laude where she earned a B.A. in history and she holds a Master of Liberal Arts degree from Stanford University. She is a Perpetual Member of the Torrey Honors Institute, a film geek, and a screenwriter. Both in her classroom and beyond, Lindsay spends her time bringing history to life for the uninitiated, promoting ecumenical and bipartisan conversation within the Body of Christ, working for social justice at home and abroad, and enjoying and preserving God's Creation.