In “Creation,” Charles Darwin the man takes precedence over Charles Darwin the scientist. In a better movie, these two aspects would not appear so far apart. Typically, Hollywood biographies of famous people attempt to show us the “real” man or woman behind the legendary achievements. The most egregious example of this was “Amadeus,” where Mozart was portrayed as a goofy, dirty-minded buffoon who just happened to be a genius.
Since Darwin is known to most people solely from his photo as the bearded, stern-faced eminence behind “The Origin of Species,” the filmmakers behind “Creation,” in attempting to give us the “real” Darwin, are practically inventing the wheel – or at least creating a new one.
Darwin (Paul Bettany) is presented to us mostly in his pre-“Origin” days as a man in his 40s distraught to the point of despair over the death in 1851 of his beloved 10-year-old daughter, Annie (Martha West). Director Jon Amiel – working from a screenplay by John Collee based on the book “Annie’s Box” by Darwin descendant Randal Keynes – goes in for a lot of ethereal father-daughter flashbacks. Annie, who also appears in the movie as a kind of ghost, shared the great scientist’s love of naturalist observation. (If you’re a fan of baby orangutans, look no further than this movie.) By fashioning Darwin’s observations through the prism of his daughter’s presence, the filmmakers are both humanizing and sentimentalizing him. They bring his genius down to earth. “Creation” is saying: Great men of science can suffer the same as us mere mortals.
In making Darwin pathologically despondent for much of the movie, the film overcorrects the cliché that rationality and passion are mutually exclusive. It doesn’t help that Darwin’s wife and first cousin, Emma (Jennifer Connelly, who is Bettany’s real-life wife), comes across as a bitter scold. Dealing with the aftermath of Annie’s death strengthened her religious faith while it helped dismantle his. Better than the scenes between Darwin and Emma are the ones between him and his clergyman friend the Rev. Innes (Jeremy Northam). They’re like intellectual wrestling matches, with Darwin always getting the pin.
But at least Darwin is wrestling with his faith, as opposed to, say, his friend Thomas Huxley (Toby Jones), who happily predicts that the publication of “Origin” will “kill God.” On the whole, though, “Creation” doesn’t delve deeply into the whole faith versus science thing, nor does it make much explicit reference to contemporary creationist controversies. The film is content to present itself as a self-enclosed period piece, a character study and not a polemic. As such, it’s rather staid and old-fashioned, despite its jumbled chronology and dreamlike flashbacks.
The film is never less than intelligent and never more than accomplished. I wish it subverted not only our commonplace conception of Darwin but also the era in which he lived. The reclusive, famished Darwin of this movie at times resembles nothing so much as the John Keats of “Bright Star.” Bettany knows how to suffer romantically – or to be more precise, Romantically. In the end, I half expected him to produce “Ode on a Grecian Urn” rather than “The Origin of Species.” Grade: B- (Rated PG-13 for some intense thematic material.)